Funny thing is, I wrote a similar post last year, and the real truth is I didn’t fully learn my lesson and spent 1,400 miles learning it all over again this year. Last year by August, I was sick of running, I had just come off a lousy performance at the Speedgoat (in every possible way, really), I went to the Tetons and had the best time climbing, and I realized I loved the running/climbing combo, I needed to get better at climbing, and I would focus on that. Somewhere in the next couple of months I decided I wanted to apply to RMI to guide Rainier for summer 2019 (the one we’re currently in) they enthusiastically responded immediately that I’m an excellent candidate and scheduled me for my test date in person in March. I scheduled the prereqs I didn’t yet have (WFR and avalanche) and set up in Ouray for the winter to climb ice and ski.
Then suddenly, in January or February, I had this thought, am I sure I want to guide? Like, this seemed like an obvious career path if I was done racing and ready to climb more and bigger mountains. I’ve never been able to find a consistent partner to go to big mountains and definitely not for the bigger projects of my dreams, nor could I afford many of these trips in my current lifestyle, and guiding was the obvious answer. But my favorite thing in the world is to camp in remote places and run new and old big mountain routes alone! So now I’m confused, I’m sitting here thinking about the actual day to day of guiding and what I would be giving up should I go that route. I make a pro/con list with three categories:
- Finally committing full time to training and racing
- Personal projects
So I’ve always wondered what would happen if I actually trained. I’ve posted several times about that this year already, so I suppose the cat is out of the bag. But the clincher on the pro/con list was, under training/racing, I will always regret it if I don’t give it a shot and see what I’m capable of. I told RMI I’m not coming and started training immediately. I left Colorado early and went to AZ to train on the actual ground. I lived in the Grand Canyon for a month, doing the 5,000 foot south rim climb from the river 3 or 4 times a week. I put in 90 mile weeks with 20,000ft of climbing. I ran laps at Mt. Whitney and at the Druid Stones in Bishop. I ran boring roads and awkward trails just to get the miles in. I skipped over climbing in the Sierras because I needed to be running and didn’t have the time for daily snow climbs and scrambles and definitely not roped climbing in favor of these lesser, boring runs.
Then I drove to Truckee, California, for a race. As the Blazer climbed out of Reno and into the mountains, my heart was raging around like a barefoot contemporary dancer inside my rib cage from the excitement of going all the way to California for a big race. It really lends a sense of gravity. I worried that all that ice climbing over the winter, and lack of winter training, would be the thing that made me fail. I wondered if I would be good enough. I wondered wtf to eat because I am always getting sick in races, although I can’t say that I’ve done that terribly many. I tried to strategize and visualize and plan the perfect three week gradual taper. I watched half of the 15th season of Gray’s Anatomy trying to distract myself the day before. I showed up to the Broken Arrow Skyrace and had an amazing run. The course was beautiful, I met lots of amazing people, and although the last major climb and the last four miles of blasting downhill hurt a little, I barely suffered at all. I ran 6:28, which I considered to be a very respectable time for a 50k with 10,000ft of climbing and placed 14th, which was the harsh reality of a stacked elite field. But I looked back on it and thought, I know I did not suffer enough to say I gave it my best. But that’s okay, because the Speedgoat is coming and that is why I ran the 1,400 miles. At the Speedgoat, I will do my best.
And besides, the Speedgoat is more my kind of race anyway. The brutal climbs and the horrific descents are things that I’m stronger in, and the miles and miles of soft, easy, rolling trails at Broken Arrow were a great advantage for everyone else. The kind of training I’ve been doing and the type of running I like to do are all aimed at the Speedgoat. I have done an incredible amount of research entailing last year’s splits, my competitor’s training and their last year’s splits, and I think, if I go out and work harder than I’ve ever worked, I could get a really great time. Then I immediately begin to dread it. You know on old rollercoasters, the first hill the train is dragged up slowly, click, click, click, and there’s that pause as you’re going over the top as the weight of the cars transitions to the downhill and it feels like your stomach is reaching for the sky and your whole body is wild with the anxiety and excitement and anticipation? That fucking hill was 1,400 miles long, and now, as I’m driving to SLC, arriving at the campground, packing up my vest, setting the alarm, I’m in the last car of the train and we’re just hanging there, waiting to go over.
The first almost 4,000 climb goes well. There’s more flat miles mixed into it than I remember, but I’m on a good pace and I’m feeling strong and great. I come through the first aid station and carefully don’t eat or drink much before the upcoming almost 4,000ft descent. It is a nightmare that never ends. It’s hard to explain how bad it is, it’s an old creek bed that is basically a trough of loose baseball and volleyball sized rocks, and there is a jeep road next to it that we are not allowed to run on, because at every opportunity when building this course he said, “How could I make this worse?”. And it goes on for almost 4,000ft. By the time I reach Pacific Mine, my whole body is battered (although I thankfully did not fall) and my mental status is already in a garbage disposal. I grab snacks and water and gel and start the next climb, 3,700 feet of entirely unscenic jeep road to nowhere in particular and I immediately realize, my gas tank is empty.
During the Broken Arrow, I consumed four gels, copious amounts of water, sips of coke and gingerale, and almost nothing else (I think maybe a cookie, a chip, and a strawberry but regular food makes me sick and that day I learned that GU doesn’t). I am 1/3 of the way into the Speedgoat and I’ve already eaten all of my gels and am now relying fully on the aid stations and I have somehow underconsumed both calories and water to the extent that in addition to feeling mentally void, I’m starving and my well trained legs have nothing to give. That’s ok, I tell myself, because it’s 99% mental anyway, and there’s time to fix this. Then maybe 1,500 miserable feet into this climb I realize, I don’t want it.
““You’ve gotta want it!” Yelled Sten Fjeldheim, and there was the whole truth. In the first five syllables, in the first few seconds of the first day of school, Sten told us all we really had to know about cross-country ski racing or likely anything else. “And if you want it bad enough you can train on the moon. But if you don’t want it bad enough you may as well head for the dorms … If you don’t want it bad enough to show up on time, you don’t need me.”” From Momentum, Pete Vordenberg’s memoirs of Olympic ski racing. I read those words this morning before I went out to run. Although I’ve read that book a dozen times, it both stings and feels liberating now. Nothing is more true than that, the whole truth.
I didn’t want it. With perfect clarity, I looked around myself at the completely uninspiring landscape, I looked at my feet as they shuffled up this dirt road and the sweat from my forehead dripped onto the dust, and I looked in myself as my morale spiralled lower and lower and I realized that I would never be a great race runner because competition wasn’t what inspired me. I knew going into it that I would have to work harder than I’ve ever worked, and it terrified me because I knew I didn’t love racing or the Speedgoat or this course enough to max myself out, to work as hard as I could. I knew this already. I know I did, I had to have. I can only run hard because I love something, because I want to stand on top of it, because it’s a route so aesthetic that it inspires me, because it’s so beautiful I can’t even stand it and the only response I could possibly have is to give my body over to it at whatever the cost.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I found myself telling someone out loud that boy was my morale spiraling down the toilet (clockwise or counterclockwise, US or Australia style, it doesn’t matter), that I felt a profound sense of deja vu. All of this had happened last year, and I had blocked it all out in my mind. I had walked away saying it was the worst day of my life, and all I remembered about why was because I was undertrained and the course is heinous. And now here I was again, trudging up the same boring, Godforsaken climb, feeling beaten and ready to give up running forever, exactly like last year. Blowing it, unwilling to give it my best, exactly like last year.
I learned the price of a podium finish, and I neither could nor would pay it. I hiked the rest of the climbs and jogged the downs with lackluster and finished faster than last year in a time I don’t remember and don’t care enough about to look up, and it turned out I was 10th but that doesn’t matter either. I spent the last descent thinking, just please let it be over. Let it be over, let it be over. And then it was, and I was so relieved to cross that finish line but I didn’t feel proud, just elated to sit the fuck down and drink my recovery drink and eat my pizza and chat with my new friends. That is one thing, I’ve met really good folks at every race I’ve done. And the Speedgoat especially, for all its misery and the cruelty and brutally that Karl put into the course, it brings us together, because at least we’re traveling through that ring of hell together.
I drive straight to the Tetons, and just like last year I spend about a week playing the guitar and reading and eating pastries at the Jackson Lake Lodge and pizza from Jackson Whole Grocer and mountain biking with Pippa, and of course I still run, but I only ran 40 miles that week and only one of those runs was in the park. I don’t climb a Teton until the day before I’m set to leave. I go up Disappointment Peak with my friend Mark. I suppose I should tell you, in case you aren’t familiar, Disappointment is a peak so directly in front of the Grand that it’s very difficult to see its summit within the Grand’s big, beautiful face. It’s so named because the first ascent attempt of the Grand ended when they summitted Disappointment Peak and realized that there is a cavernous and impossible gap between their bodies and the Grand Teton. Disappointment is certainly one of my favorites, there’s no long miserable talus hopping and you get straight to the good stuff, very exposed but easy scrambling. I’ve done this route enough times now that I know all the parts of it, and I know that because we’ve been climbing the east side, and the Grand is on the west side, when we finally crest the ridge that we’ll take to the summit, suddenly we’ll be face to face, eye to eye with the Grand.
I reach it first and I just stand there for a moment, staring, then step aside and usher Mark into my spot so he can experience that bigness, that sense of fullness and awe for his first time, that I still get every time but of course I remember the first especially keenly. And I begin to weep. Because it’s just all come down on me like the roof of an old, closed down bowling alley in a heavy snow year. I’ve wasted this whole year, for nothing. I should’ve been doing this, this thing that I love so much. Climbing mountains, bigger mountains, harder mountains. Climbing at all. Playing around in and doing alpine things. And instead, there were all those 12, 14, 16 mile runs. There was day after day of the trial of miles, just filling in the boxes of my training log. And all of those 1,400 miles (and something like 350,000 feet, mind you, which was no small thing either) led up to this miserable day on which I proved that I am mediocre at running [racing] and I always will be.
I say the short version of this to Mark. And he reminds me, but I had to do it. I needed to know, I would’ve always regretted it if I didn’t give it my best shot and see what I could accomplish. Then I realize, I hadn’t thought I might fail. Of course, when you set out to do something big, you could succeed or you could fail. I’m still struggling to put my finger on this, because it’s not yet clear if all of that work, all that 1,400 miles, is built up in my body just waiting to do something useful. Because on neither race day did I push myself to my limit and come up short. I blew it at the Speedgoat on the second climb and I knew I was blowing it and I just couldn’t make myself care. Which is still failing at my objective, but I think it’s more of a principles thing and now that the race season is over, I’m free to do with my fitness what I want and work on these personal projects that were and are so much more important to me. When I summit Disappointment, I stand there on the edge, over that huge, sheer gap that’s so deep and vertical that it gives you vertigo. I close my eyes and feel the wind and the bigness of the Grand and I’m so full of delight, it’s like my body can’t hold itself together and might just evaporate. And although my heart is beating so hard I can feel my pulse in every part of my body, it slows, because now I am perfectly calm.
I’m sitting on the couch in the camper as I write this, we’re in the middle of nowhere at Clear Creek now, and both so relieved to be out of Jackson because now Pip can run in any mountains she wants again and we don’t have neighbors and there’s water and it’s not so hot. I’m drinking coke over snow I carried down from the mountains earlier today and eating a big hunk of Tillamook cheese and trying not to think about all that time I could’ve been doing fun shit. Today we did a linkup in a big loop, not as big as the Epic Zombie Loop and not nearly as disastrous [why haven’t I written about the Epic Zombie Loop!? It’s like I blocked that 24 hours out of my brain completely. God I have been thinking I should write about something and not being able to think of ANYTHING interesting I’ve done lately, and there’s that juicy topic, just sitting there]. I could feel the altitude even though we were at 7k for three weeks, I guess I only went up really high twice in that time. I jogged descents, I stopped for snacks and water filtering, I filmed Pip rolling around in the snow, I cavorted, I looked for a new route and failed to find it, I sprinted the last mile, and I burned one of the ascents nearly as hard as I could, we got rained on when the sky opened up just as we got below treeline. I’m crying into my snow-cold coke right now in relief, because when you’re free to do whatever you want in the world again, you look back and see that when you couldn’t, it was all in your own mind to begin with.