Coolest Things to Run 2021

Nolan’s 14 2020 was a banner year for Nolan’s FKTs, probably because the races were canceled and the pros had nothing else to do. While it used to have so much mystery and appeal and was rarely attempted and even more rarely completed, its popularity doesn’t change that it’s the most aesthetic 100 mile line in the world and deserves a prominent place on this list. Since I’ve fallen in love with skyrunning, 100s seem less appealing (there’s a reason the Barkley’s not on this list), but I still secretly think about digging out my poles and meditating up some resilience and going for it again. Here’s iRunfar’s interview with new male FKT, and Sabrina Stanley’s video recap of her FKT, and I still love Joe Grant’s video.

The Grand (Teton) Traverse: From time to time, someone will tell me they or someone they know did the Grand Traverse. And every time, I’m disappointed when I find out they’re talking about the race in Crested Butte that’s taking the name in vain. I’m sure that’s a cool race and everything, but there’s only one Grand Traverse and it magnificently and terrifyingly traverses the main 14 peaks of the Teton Range, including the Grand. It’s the ultimate collision of alpinism and mountain running, if one wishes to do it in sub 24 hours, they must have the beastliest of thighs, excellent climbing prowess, and you’ve got to wear a helmet and carry an ax. Record holders have free soloed the 5.8 north face of the Grand in their running shoes. A route like this is so compelling, I’ve been working on my climbing prowess to be able to do it one day. While we’re talking Tetons, there’s also the Picnic (Unofficial Grand Teton Triathalon), circumnavigating the range, and the nearby Cirque of the Towers route to consider.

Me on Teewinot, when we were scoping out the course this past summer

Tromso Skyrace: the brainchild of Emilie Forsberg and Kilian Jornet, all you need really is to watch the highlights reel and you’ll be looking up plane tickets to Norway. Exposure, scrambling, altitude, snow, the headliner is the Hamperokken Skyrace, a 57k with 15,748ft of gain in “a place to run between the sky and the earth to feel freedom” that “follows the soul of skyrunning.” Held annually in early August.

Wonderland: The link goes to Candice Burt’s beautiful and inspiring write-up of her 2018 FKT. Awe-inspiring views, long, brutal, wild, and 22,000ft, this 93 mile loop circumnavigates Mt. Rainier. You can also check out Gary Robbins’ video about his experience on Wonderland. While we’re on the topic, it requires more technical experience than most things on this list, but it’s on my bucket list to pursue a RT on Mt. Rainier in mountain runner style, and possibly go after the sea to summit duathalon, more info about those things on the fkt proboards site here.

Grand Canyon R2R2R: Obviously captures the hearts of Americans. 42 miles, 11,000ft gain. The bottom of the Grand Canyon might be the oldest exposed part of the earth, and it feels magical and vital and nourishing just to be there. S. Kaibab is an epic adventure in and of itself, and just imagining crossing the world’s biggest chasm (I didn’t do the research to back up this claim) then turning around and doing it again is compelling and gratifying. (if you are considering a R2R2R, check out my GC training plans on Training Peaks). Check out Walmsley’s FKT interview here, or the time the Coconino Cowboys did the R2R2R Alt here.

Matterhorn/Matterhorn Ultraks: Did anyone watch Summits of My Life and NOT get obsessed with running the Matterhorn? If you’re not a climber and don’t find the mountain itself inspiring, maybe you’d like to run around near it in a skyrace in Zermatt? The Matterhorn Ultraks Skyrace is “a magical track” that gains almost 12,000ft in just under a 50k.

Diagonale des Fous/Grand Raid: The Madmen’s Diagonal, about 100 miles and 31,600 ft of gain crossing an island near Madagascar, this highly technical race has a mythical status, possibly as or more technical than how complicated it would be to get there. But, this is a list of the dopest running events and adventures, not a list of the easiest or the ones nearest to you. I loved the look of their 2019 ad:

If you’re interested in coaching, check out alpineruncoach.com!

Rules for Overtraining Recovery & Tips for Recovery in General & Nervous System Health

I was listening to an audiobook about training yesterday and while the guy was discussing this study about the effects of different workout intensities, he said, “No one’s ever gotten overtrained from doing too much low intensity, because low intensity doesn’t suppress your parasympathetic nervous system.” And I was like WHAT!? Why is this the first time I’ve heard anyone reference that!? And I thought, over the past year+, I’ve failed so many times, partially because I couldn’t find specifics about how to get back into training after you’ve gone through the initial recovery phase.

Pip looking gorgeous on a short, easy run/hike a couple weeks ago
  1. In case you’re starting at square one (Do I have OTS?) the only thing you can do is take time off, complete rest. They say you’ll just know when you’re ready to start back up again, and they’re right. There will be a phase where you start feeling better, you start noticing your symptoms going away, and then one day you’ll just feel normal again. The most important rule for this time is, do not train at all until you WANT to.
  2. Your first forays back in should be extremely brief with tons of recovery between. As in, 20-30 minute walks, then a rest day, then another 20-30 minute walk, until you can tell for sure that your nervous system is recovering in between. I know there’s a lot of controversy about using HRV as a training metric, it seems mostly uninformed. Heart rate variability is an excellent metric for determining the health of your nervous system, and now that I have a Whoop and I’ve been doing this, I wish I had it at the beginning of my OTS recovery. It helps you tell the difference between fatigue and normal fitness-related tiredness, and the difference between the impact exercise is having on your cardiovascular system and your nervous system, which is critical.
  3. LOW VOLUME: Because I couldn’t find any information on what training should be like after OTS, I eased back in slowly over the winter then starting working my mileage back up in the spring, like I normally would. I was initially feeling good, then three weeks later I relapsed. About a month later, I heard a quote in a general athlete recovery-themed book about an athlete that had OTS and his coach prescribed him low volume with lots of recovery for the first six months. This corroborated with my recent experience, so I got on the low volume train.
  4. SHORT: No long workouts, even if weekly mileage is lower. This ties into low volume, and maybe it was already obvious to you but it was not obvious to me. Once I decreased my volume, twice I went out for runs that were far too long. It was mostly by accident, the local trail group asked my boyfriend to scout remote parts of trails to determine where they should focus trail work efforts, and I went along, and both times they ended up being very long days (19 and 26). Both times, it took over a week of feeling cortisol surges and full-body fatigue all day every day until I could even think about going for an easy walk.
  5. LOW INTENSITY: And ONLY low intensity, zone one. After I accepted low volume, I thought the smart thing to do would be to up the intensity, temporarily, until I could do more volume. This was poorly thought out, but at the time I thought it made a lot of sense. If I could only do a couple runs a week and they had to be shorter, I could do them harder. Like, if I couldn’t do 10 or 12 milers, I could do a six miler with a hard effort on a 2,000 or 3,000ft climb (I live in Ouray, where climbing is always the only option). Perhaps you can see the writing on the wall, it didn’t take long before I relapsed again.
we went on this 8 mile hike, longer than anything I’d done recently but because I literally walked the whole time I felt awesome.

Now that I’ve figured out those last three principles (low volume, short workouts, and low intensity) I’m able to workout regularly and I’m feeling great. I’ve also noticed on the Whoop that my vitals are all better when I’m doing this. Aerobic-level exercise metabolizes cortisol that’s in your system, and during your OTS recovery you’ll almost certainly have too much cortisol in your system, which will continue to adversely affect your recovery. You can learn lots and lots about cortisol if you feel like it, but to sum it up quickly:

CORTISOL: prevent cortisol dumps by not letting your heart rate get too high (by too high intensity of exercise, stress, or otherwise). Metabolize cortisol in your system by getting regular low-intensity aerobic exercise. Look into adrenal fatigue supplements to support your body’s ability to regulate cortisol production (you can find much better info about this elsewhere, too, but I can tell you the difference to me was really noticeable when I started taking them).

Things that are really big stressors on your system:

  1. Elevation Gain
  2. Altitude, even just existing at altitude
  3. Heat
  4. Intensity
  5. Mental stress

I’m bringing this up because it was probably some combination of these things that caused your OTS in the first place, and some combination of these things might sabotage your recovery. It’s been a big struggle for me to keep my intensity low because all the trails here are steep climbs and I’m always at high altitude. It was very eye opening to me since I got the Whoop how much a mentally stressful day, for whatever the reason, put a strain on my body, equivalent to a hard workout. BTW, I have no affiliation with Whoop, and I think it’s very useful and perhaps I’ll write a review post on the pro’s and con’s, but in general I think having more awareness of tracking things like your heart rate (and I’m talking thorough tracking of heart rate, daily average, during workouts, and overnight resting HR average) and heart rate variability give you really good information on how much strain you’re putting on your body (in life and in training), and how well you’re adapting and recovering to that strain, particularly, like I mentioned earlier, the difference between your cardiovascular system’s load and your nervous system’s strain (perhaps I’ll write a whole post sometime just on that). Because ideally, training will put a strain on your cardiovascular system that you then adapt to and recover from, but straining your nervous system is the basis of overtraining, and it’s much harder to bounce back from.

ice coming in at the ice park a couple weeks ago

I’ve actually got some really interesting data about altitude and my health after my recent two week trip to low altitude that I’ll do a whole post on soon. We all already know what a stressor altitude is, but it blew my mind how much healthier my body and nervous system was when I left it and I am stoked to share that. Like of course it affects you, but now that I can say how much quantitatively, it’s bananas.

General tips for promoting the health of your nervous system and high HRV:

  1. your nervous system likes a routine. It’s great for your physical and mental health anyway.
  2. get plenty of sleep, and keep your hours regular. As in, go to bed and get up at the same time. Ideally work it out so you never have an alarm, when you’re recovering from OTS at any stage, it’s best to let your body sleep as long as it wants.
  3. Normatec. They’re so expensive, I almost don’t want to bring it up because they’re out of reach for most (I certainly could NEVER have afforded them and am very lucky to have access to them out of someone else’s generosity). Using them for at least an hour a day both increases my sleep quality and quantity, and increases my HRV by an average of 12%.
  4. Meditation/breathwork/yoga. I put all these in the same category because each one has a significant effect on my HRV but I think it’s all for the same reason, and when I do yoga I generally do breathwork and it’s at least somewhat meditative. Any combination of these also combats mental stresses that are straining your system, and all of them stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the thing we damaged in OTS, the health of which we’re working to restore.
  5. Drinking enough water. Duh? But then, I’m terrible at it.
  6. Legs up the wall. Also very stimulating to the parasympathetic nervous system, also great for sleep.
  7. Massage: when Tim and I trade massages, the effect on my HRV is noticeable. I suspect but I haven’t input it into my Whoop journal so I don’t have the data to back it up, that if I spent any significant amount of time self massaging like I normally would during training, that would also have a positive impact on HRV.

That’s all for now! Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve got a post just on the quantitative effects of altitude coming up. In the meantime, Pippa Climbs Mt. Rainier is in paperback now, check it out on Amazon. And if you’re interested in personal run coaching or training plans for various adventures (in addition to the Grand Canyon plans, I’ve got more mtn specific plans coming in time for New Year’s) check those out on Training Peaks or alpineruncoach.com

Quotes that Aren’t About Running that Totally Could be about Running

Approximately four miles into your weekly long run, that you’ve chosen to do in a new place while you’re on vacation.

You just do it. You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot before the other, and God damn it, you refuse to let it get to you. You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way. – Elizabeth Taylor

Your pacer says to you at mile 70 of your first 100.

 “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.” – Jonas Salk

You realize right after you pat yourself on the back for having done ALL of your training for a whole week.

“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” — Audre Lorde

You say to yourself as you’re chugging Udo’s oil in a hot epsom salt bath while you’re trying to rearrange your budget so that you can afford Normatec boots.

You tell yourself as you enter the Hardrock lottery OR as you step outside for your first day of Nolan’s 14 training.

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. –Henry Ford

5 minutes into a windy run, when you’ve committed to your new life of positivity vis a vis Joe Vigil.

If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.– Nora Roberts

This is clear, if you don’t go out for a run, you’ll never have the life you want.

The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”– Maimonides

So pull that trigger on Runsignup.

Hey guys, check out my training plans and winter coaching special, alpineruncoach.com

back to the grand canyon/sympathetic dominance ruins everything.

For about 40 seconds I let the demons loose on Grandview and go flying down a flat part of the trail. I turn a corner and there’s a short climb. My heart already feels like it’s about to explode [and not in the fun trying-really-hard way, but in the my-nervous-system’s-broken-and-can’t-regulate-my-heart-rate way]. I know I’ve pushed it too much already. I want to go further, and I want to go faster, and while giving in this little bit by hiking three miles into the Grand Canyon feels like it quenches my thirst a little, it probably made me more thirsty overall, like that water Dumbledore has to drink in Harry Potter six. And I’ll pay for it tomorrow, and for several more days with bad vitals. Because that’s right, I have a device now that measures my heart rate variability, heart rate, basal temp, movement, sleep, and respiratory rate every second 24 hours a day now. I love it and fear it.

Grand view from Grandview

The Grandview trail is somewhat controversial in history and I had a vendetta, not against it, but with my failure related to it, left over from last year. See, it’s the only trail you can’t get to by bus and so last year, I really wanted to do it but put it off heinously until my second to last day in the park. Then, because I felt tragic about driving all the way there, I attempted to ride my bike, based solely off of the information I had gleaned from riding a few miles down the USFS road I was camped on. There was a sign that said, “Grandview 13 miles.” I said, 13 miles sounds good to me! And packed up.

blindly following a sign that says 13 miles with no other preparation and no maps will get you here, to a fire tower and the AZ trail, which is also labeled Grandview here?

13 miles later, I arrived at a fire overlook tower, still alongside of the dirt road. I climbed the tower for some reason. I don’t have a fear of heights generally, but the dumb thing was basically a ladder made of that metal mesh that’s see through, which is sometimes cool but also the whole tower swayed and it was hard to see where you were putting your feet since it was see through. I continued riding the road, and saw 14 miles, 15 miles, 16, 17. Suddenly, I was on the paved park road! I made a guess and turned left? 18, and 19. Then I gave up and turned around. When I arrived back in camp, I looked at my map on Strava and saw that I was so close to the trailhead when I turned around, it had to have been a half mile or less. Oh well. The very last day in the canyon was reserved for one more Kaibab to the river and back, so Grandview wasn’t to be in 2019.

Check out training plans for first timers to run or hike the Grand Canyon double crossing on my coaching website or Training Peaks.

So here we are in 2020, and I’ve just learned somehow that OTS is actually a small, unusual, and severe category of the Sympathetic Dominance umbrella. How did it take so long for me to find this? Because unlike OTS, sympathetic dominance is a hot topic on the internet, and lots of people are on its spectrum. The internet tells me that I should stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system by doing reflexology on my feet, eating in such a way that might help balance too much copper in my body, and exercise should be limited to activities like restorative yoga and meditative walking. Because anything at all that activates my sympathetic nervous system will make things worse.

a trail paved in rocks, intentionally.

So Grandview was the first trail in the Grand Canyon. I can’t remember the other stories we’d heard before arriving at the TH, but the TH sign paints a picture of some guy that arrived at the canyon to mine, found the mine to be unproductive, and immediately pivoted to tourism. At the time, tourists from Flagstaff were being stagecoached for 12 hours to view the canyon, and there were photographers to take their photos and some amenities, but nobody was entering the canyon yet. So this guy takes his unproductive mine and builds this totally absurd trail down into the canyon, then collects some mules and lets tourists ride them down it. We’re all used to this feature of the GC by now, but I imagine how absurd the notion would’ve been then.

I’m also wondering about this trail, and how impossible it would’ve been for hooves the way it was built, steeply paved in rocks and with pretty big drops often. But then I think, tourists may not have had Yelp yet, but if this guy was killing people on the regular, word would spread and he’d lose his business right?

If you saw this from the side, you’d see it was a lattice of hundreds of logs that was backfilled with dirt and rocks, and there’s no solid reason it’s still resisting gravity.

It’s also really cool to think about how hard to build this trail would’ve been. In some places, he hauled hundreds of trees to frame out and build a trail that just fully didn’t exist on the cliffside. It certainly takes an interesting and probably the only possible path down, traversing cliffs and winding in and out of other large rock features. He must have really cared about it, because there had to have been easier ways to make money [jobs easier than building this trail include: Alaskan fishing, oil riggers, blood worm hunter, sewer inspector, building the Transcontinental railroad, and those explorers that traversed Antarctica by kite boat].

The GC’s gotten some new signage since the last time I was there. I’ve seen in the news that this was a particularly bad year for rescues. I imagine there are folks whose job it is to go on the offensive and find new ways to prevent stupid people from killing themselves there.

don’t end up here.
reenacting the signage

At this point in recovery, after overdoing it and relapsing so many times, there’s nothing I’m more desperate to do than to run again. But I understand that I need to get better and that there is no other way but to back off and give it time. Naturally, it was nearly impossible to be on this beautiful trail in the canyon thinking, I have to keep my dumb heart rate down. If I do too much today, it’ll set me back. Because then you’re like, I literally don’t care about anything else besides running this trail right now. Screw being pragmatic! How could I give this up?

Then I kept seeing points I wanted to go to. I wanted to see what it looked like from there, and then from there. What’s down there? I needed to know. But every step down is more steps up and more damage and slower recovery. I just listened to the Rich Roll episode with Apollo Ohno, one, that guy is amazing. Two, he raves about how there’s just nothing better than being a full time athlete. It is the most beautiful thing in a human existence. What are we without it? Wins and losses, boring grown up stuff. When you’re training, nothing exists but the act of bettering yourself every single day.

from last year, I didn’t get this close to the river this year

He also discusses this new documentary he’s in, The Weight of Gold, about the mental health of Olympic level athletes in the US, and how for him he’s 10 years into a journey of having to work on every single day being okay with not being an Olympic athlete anymore. I’ll never understand his level, but I do get it when every day I think about how badly I want to be there again. Being in the GC, too, it just reminds me how fit I was last time I was there. To maximize your potential, to be your absolute best every single day, to rip technical descents, fly past the tourists, and burn the ascents, to jump in the river. God, to see the fucking river! To sprint the bridges. There’s nothing else.

Here’s the trailer for that docu, which sounds awesome but it’s on HBO so who knows when I’ll get to see it. Great trailer though, it’s three minutes long and I cried. Five stars.

8 Books to Run Happier

My favorite books to inspire, run smarter, blow your mind, and find more fulfillment in running and your life.

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory by Deena Kastor I’m not going to say this was my *favorite running book of all time* because it would be insane to make that claim about any book, but I am putting it first on this list for a reason. What’s so great about this book is, it’s somewhat educational, it gives you a glimpse into the glittery and exciting world of the elite, it’s wildly inspirational, and the takeaway is bringing more positivity into your life and running. No book has had this big of an impact on my life since the first time I read Once a Runner! Big time.

you can buy this graphic quote on stickers or whatnot in my Threadless shop here

The Science of Running: How to find your limit and train to maximum performance by Steve Magness. Okay, Steve Magness is a genius, and this book is the ultimate nerd out for us science minded runners (which obviously isn’t for everyone, even I had a hard time following a couple of the chapters and I studied biochemistry, although I listened to it and I don’t know that was the right format). It’s intensely informative, and it makes the other running instruction manuals look like those learn to read books with Nan and Sand. I just saw when looking up a link for this post that Magness has a new book. the Passion Paradox, about the joy and unbalance of intensity and I am so stoked to read it I might put this post on hold until I have.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall I resisted reading this for a long time, it was so popular and I had this conception that it was all about the whole silly barefoot running fad. It’s actually awesome, it’s a great story, there’s tons of research and conspiracy and science and history. Classic. Must read.

you can buy this as a sticker or magnet here

Strong by Kara Goucher The Amazon reviews are absolutely right, this is not a memoir or an instruction manual, there’s some but not a lot of meat to it. It’s the jumping off point for you to learn to write your own confidence journal and it does that perfectly. The contributions by other prominent women are the icing on the cake, this is an inspirational workbook!

Run or Die by Kilian Jornet Is it too obvious to include? I couldn’t exactly make a list of favorite running books without it though. I handwrote out the Skyrunner’s Manifesto and had it taped to my door for years. Kilian doesn’t give a lot of interviews [but when he does it’s a must listen, here’s Kilian’s episode of Rich Roll], so this is a rare and delightful look inside his wonderful head. His new book, Above the Clouds just came out, and I’m not all the way through it yet, it’s beautiful and mature, but it doesn’t have the same rawness as Run or Die. I relish in when they all lived in one studio apartment, called their skis and bikes their “girlfriends”, and dropped their rent on race fees. Speaking of girlfriends, I’m going to include Skyrunner here, Emelie’s book is delightful and inspiring, just like she is.

you can buy this as a sticker or graphic here

Run the World by Becky Wade Becky Wade was an elite college track runner that eventually moved on to marathons and in between she got a prestigious fellowship that paid for a year long odyssey visiting great running cultures of the world for a year and then she wrote a book about it. What a fun exploration of culture and community and why people run, beautiful and brilliant.

Meb For Mortals by Meb Keflezighi I loved this deep dive into Meb’s world but not everyone wants to “Run, think, and eat like a champion marathoner.” There’s chapters on inventive strength moves, he gives you the nitty gritty of his training schedule and eating (although it infuriates me when he says many runners think they can eat whatever they want but it’s just not true, paraphrased), recovery, mindset, just everything. He wasn’t one of the great runners of our time by accident or talent alone, he devoted everything in his life to it and he lays it all out in this book. I think his somewhat arrogant tone is delightful here (but not in his autobiography) but I’m sure not everyone will agree. 🤷‍♂️

Once a Runner by John L. Parker I know there’s folks that haven’t read it yet. We used to consider this the Bible. I’ve read it probably, 80 times? I read single chapters over and over sometimes. The flip side of getting too intense about it is it might lead you too far into the rabbit hole. It’s a fictional story about the pursuit of perfection and world records and Olympics with a cast of some technically fictional characters [universal avatars that you’ll recognize in folks today] and some real life historical heroes.

you can buy this as a sticker or magnet here

The graphics I designed for this post are all in my Threadless shop if you’re interested! Want to read more? I’ve just started writing about yoga again here. The Amazon book links are affiliate links. If you use any of the links to buy anything, it doesn’t cost you extra but it helps support this blog! xo

Cass, Hope, & Tetons

There was a fox running alongside the road. Trotting, really. The perfect combination of spry and delighted, wiry and self satisfied. He was incredibly glossy, his fur rippling against the sunlight like a shampoo commercial. He carried a dead vole. His eyes twinkled. I swear he smirked when he caught us checking him out. At that moment, he caught wind of another prey. He discarded the vole and dove into the forest in pursuit, limitless.

I am not strong anymore. I think about it all the time: what it felt like, to feel powerful. To know you could go anywhere, and fast. To believe I was limitless. I wrote down affirmations after I read Deena Kastor’s book, and Kara Goucher’s. I am powerful. I am fast. I still don’t believe them. I keep telling myself that every time OTS pushes me back down and I fight to stand up again, to run again, that it’s making me in stronger in a different way. That when I am recovered, I’ll be stronger than ever. I do believe that.

me teewinot

me on Teewinot

The other day I really overdid it. We went for a run up to Alaska Basin, hoping to see the west side of the Tetons and Ice Lake. It was inspiring to be on new terrain, a new trail. It was beautiful. Mostly, I’m grateful that I can do things again. That I can dig in, blow past people, climb. I splash water on my face and arms to cool off, I watch Pippa cavort. Pip is full of delight, even when she’s tired. I started feeling really bad at the end of the climb. I’ve noticed that it’s right around 2,500 feet of climbing that the fatigue begins to be overwhelming. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I started heading down. Usually, I can go down okay, but that day the fatigue was pervasive. I shuffled back and laid down, barely able to lift my arms.

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Middle Teton

Two days earlier, we climbed the Middle Teton. I was uncharacteristically spry after a week of Grand Teton recovery. Some days when I’m fully recovered, I get a hint of what it used to feel like to blaze up a trail. To push, to even have another gear. It never lasts past 2,500 feet. But after that, I can feel the fatigue in my whole body but I can keep going, slowly. When it takes us three and a half hours to reach the saddle between Middle and South, I’m still disappointed in myself. Even though I understood that of course I’m not strong like I used to be, I haven’t been able to train properly. And I’m so grateful that I’ve come this far, to even be able to climb 6,000 feet, to do a 16 mile day. That I can stand on top of something. I downclimbed quickly and gracefully. When I reached the trail, I nearly sprinted the last four miles. I felt fast. I cavorted. I was full of delight. Then I paid for it.

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Exum Ridge

The last time I climbed the Grand Teton was two years ago. I remember it being just hard enough sometimes to keep it interesting. I remember the exposure being extreme, the climbing beautiful, the downclimb long and exhausting. In 24 hours I climbed the Middle Teton and the Grand, then two days later I raced Rendezvous and got fourth, then attempted the Grand the next morning. It feels amazing to think I could do that. This year, it took a week for me to recover from the Grand. I also really struggled on the Exum Ridge. I was scared of everything. It’s embarrassing, but it’s not something people tell you about OTS, that you can’t process fear very well. It’s because it’s all tied into your nervous and adrenal systems. With the slightest bit of stress on my system, it floods with cortisol. It was surreal, to do something I’ve done before, something I found easy the first time, but this time to feel scared. It’s illogical.

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Top of the World

I suppose the silver lining is that I still was able to do it. I do believe that the positive that comes out of this is mental strength, resiliency. Forgiveness. Nourishment. Priorities. So much more knowledge about my body. This year in the Tetons, I haven’t been able to do as much as I wanted but I still got to do a lot. I made great strides in downclimbing, in skill and comfort level. That was obvious even on our first summit of this trip, Teewinot. I got a lot better at mountain biking, and particularly at taking risks. I’ve learned that single minded devotion isn’t always a good thing, and that if you can lose everything so easily, you should’ve had a lot more to lose. And I think I do now.

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Tim coming down Middle

I was really worried feeling so bad on Saturday after Alaska Basin, but my heart rate variability returned the next morning, and my heart rate’s been going down steadily each day since. It was under 60 this morning. Taking a deep dive into understanding the science of recovery and owning all these tools to evaluate it in myself will be infinitely valuable when I can actually train again. For now, I check my heart rate, I drink more water, I take supplements prescribed by my acupuncturist, and I binge on OTS success stories, people who recovered and came back stronger than ever. We named that fox in Teton Canyon Cass, after Quentin Cassidy. As disappointing as it can be sometimes, in equal measure I am full of hope.

 

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Middle

Hope Epic Zombie Loop pt 2

“It was too wonderful for words…

‘Do you think I’m a fool, Uncle Mike?’ asked Ernest suddenly.

‘If you think it the right thing to do, you are right to do it.’ replied Uncle Mike quietly. ‘I believe the experience will be valuable.’ (both of the book quotes were from the Mrs. Buncle series)

 

I picked up the CDT to Hope Pass and realized I could feel hot spots in my feet. I’ve had trench foot before, so I know the warning signs, and once you get hot spots you need to dry out your feet. I took off my shoes and socks, and rubbed my feet until the wrinkles dried out a bit. I gave Pippa some of the dinner I’d thankfully packed for her. I took out my headlamp, and realized I had no idea how much the batteries had in them, and had no spare batteries. I was really playing roulette here when I planned this loop. Or craps. I guess they call it Russian Roulette because of the alliteration? Because pretty much all the casino games are purely luck-based, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? I realize now, yes, that is the point. Because there’s no fun in doing something when you know how it’ll turn out. It’s the risk. You don’t have to risk your life to know that we want to be surprised. I suppose not literally everyone wants to be surprised, or they’d be out gambling or climbing mountains or squirrel suiting instead of going to work every day and having a glass of wine on the couch at night with their safe, loyal friends or spouses or whoever they hang out with.

 

When I was in California, I had been dying to go back to Leadville because California sucked for all the reasons I’ve already discussed and I just thought of all the possibilities of running in the Colorado mountains again. But since I’d been back, I had only done things that I knew I could do. There’s no doubt or fear or excitement anymore about running Mt. Elbert or Mt. Massive, even if you make a really interesting loop of it. Obviously, even when exhausted, I can complete those runs and there’s no mystery at all. The mystery of this loop is what was exciting, I guess subconsciously I planned it poorly on purpose. Who knows how many miles! Who cares! Will I even be able to complete the loop with the snow conditions? If not, what the fuck will I do? I DON’T KNOW! It might be miserable or amazing and certainly no one, including myself, will be able to predict how I will handle whatever obstacles might come my way.

 

I put my wet socks and wetter shoes back on and continue up. Once the CDT meets the CT, they both rise immediately, incredibly steeply, to climb to Hope Pass. I don’t remember the last time I ran, I’m so tired, I’ve been hiking ever since I got out of the Basin of Eternal Sadness. Zombie, zombie, zombie-e-e-e. I pass a campsite and keep climbing, but then I realize, the higher I climb, the colder it will get because that’s how both altitude and night work. My feet are soaked, and I’m well on my way to trench foot. I return to the campsite and put Pippa’s puffy coat on her. I take my shoes off and stuff my socks into my arm pits, leaving my feet bare to dry. I spoon Pip and wrap the emergency blanket around us. I’ve just been telling it like it is, and how it is sounds pretty grim. I stopped because I thought I’d feel better after a nap, and I knew stopping wouldn’t be possible if I went higher or later in the night, and I knew my feet had to dry out anyway. But it was fine. In your head, in your head, they are fighting.

 

Pip slept and I didn’t. I would say I “tossed and turned” all night, but that wouldn’t be accurate because emergency blankets don’t allow for any tossing or turning or they’ll rip and leave you uncovered. So, I had laid still but fitful for … not all night but however long we were there. I looked at my watch, and it was dead. I turned my phone on, it sprang to life, I think it was 2 or 2:30am. My socks were nearly dry, dry adjacent. Good enough. My shoes were cold and crispy, like if I tap danced in them, they might shatter. I didn’t try to tap dance in them. I just climbed slowly, slowly towards the pass. I had actually never done this side of the pass before, so in addition to the mysteries of mileage and snow conditions, there was the extra fun of being on a new trail. New to me. I reached a talus field covered in so much avalanche debris it takes a long time to cross, I can’t figure out where the trail has gone, my halo of light is too small, and my mind is too tired to find a way. I get above treeline and feel like I’ve been wrapped in the stars, like those gray wool blankets firefighters wrap around survivors. It’s in your head, in your head, zombie.

 

At the top of the pass, two extraordinary things happened (and I’m using extraordinary here in the literal sense as opposed to the cultural definition, extra ordinary as opposed to extremely good). I got cell service, for one. A couple texts came through and I hurriedly sent off messages to my parents, advising them of the adventure I was currently on, because I realized somewhere along the line that I hadn’t let anyone know where I was going (yet another symptom of biting-off-more-than-you-can-chew in an adventure that’s much bigger than you expected). I wanted some comfort, some familiarity. Though I had been doing all these miles this year, they were almost entirely on trail except for a couple small bushwacks. I hadn’t realized that my mental fortitude had waned so much, but of course it had. I hadn’t been training it and bodies and minds are very efficient. They get rid of whatever they don’t use regularly, like when your phone is all, “Critically low storage! Archive items that haven’t been used recently???!?” And you’re like, yeah, sure, if I haven’t used it recently I probably don’t need it. Your brain makes those decisions without giving you an “Okay” message to click on. And now, your Nolan’s-level resilience has been archived, and nobody told you. And that is exactly how computers are different from human bodies. Man, I should go back to school just so I can write a thesis about AI.

 

I stood at the edge of the snow, it reflected vividly in the little moonlight there was, as snow does, because snow reflects 80% of any light shined upon it. Whereas the ground reflects, I don’t know, none? My headlamp was off, and I just stood there, taking it in, too tired to really formulate, wtf am I going to do? Oh right, the other extra ordinary thing. The ridge is lined with a brutally steep snowfield that is actually, at 3:30am or whatever time it might be, pure ice. And I have socks and La Sportiva Akashas with which to cross it. [look up more Zombie lyrics, because when you sing them, they’re undoubtedly wrong]. I traverse as far as I can towards whatever mountain is east of Hope Pass, and find a place to descend the steepest part of the ice. A couple hundred feet down, the ice softens to shitty snow and I’m back on it, descending and post holing into icy water yet again. The snow ends just before treeline and I realize, I have no idea where the trail is. I traverse left and right, hoping to cross it. The ground is a swamp, though, a snowmelt-cold swamp, which is just as bad as an ice-cold swamp, and looking back I realize that I probably was crossing it but wouldn’t have been able to see any trail under the water and mud and plants and slush. I descend a labyrinth of felled trees, to find a dead end and waterfalls and cliffs. I ascend and traverse and descend again only to find the same cliffy dead ends over and over again. I find a high point in the swamp and sit down, wrap the space blanket around Pip and I, hoping to wait it out until sunrise. In five minutes, I feel numb.

 

I get up and ascend and descend over and over again, but getting a little further down each time like a chameleon, unsure of its next step and trying to be calculated but ultimately all the moving backwards and forward will finally inch it to its destination. I stumble upon the trail and cry out with relief and gratitude. I am too tired, or dehydrated, or tired, or zombie, to cry. Now that I’m on the trail, the dense, jungley forest of Willis Gulch feels infested with something terrifying. I’m not really that scared of lions and bears, but when you’re tired your eyes or your brain play tricks on you. I felt paranoid. I began to sing, devotional songs in Sanskrit and Play it Right by Sylvan Esso, the songs I can think of at this moment. “Oh I feel like an animal in the night [because we are] play it right.” The dirt trail is plagued by tree roots but it is refreshingly soft on my knees. I feel the hot spots, but know it’s too cold to stop. The animals I’m hallucinating aren’t mountain lions or bears, they’re prehistoric. They’re saber-tooth tigers, their enormous presence so heavy and taking up so much space, I can feel them there. I’m sure they are there. “And I will be more than a small human with her head pressed against your mouth in motion.” The miles add up. My watch isn’t adding them anymore, but I know how many more miles it is to get home now. With their tanks and their bombs, and their bombs, and their guns, in your head, in your head, they are crying.

 

At the base of the Willis Gulch trail, there is a hint of light over the Mosquito Range. I turn right, towards “Interlaken”, not yet realizing my mistake. Two and a half miles later, I arrive at Interlaken, and it is no place at all. The CT continues directly to the east, and I realize I have to go all the way back to Willis Gulch and west to the Willis Gulch trailhead, where the bridge is to cross Lake Creek. My feet burn and sting and rage, I know it’s too late now and I have trench foot. You know when your feet get all wrinkly in the bath? The skin is swollen and stretched and sensitive from the water it’s soaked up. If you let your feet be swollen and sensitive for long enough, and in fact bear your weight on them step after step while they’re in that condition, those wrinkles will begin to blister. That is trench foot, hundreds of blisters, and raw, swollen skin.

 

I wake up, my face feels rough and my neck is stiff, but I am bathed in sunlight, and warm. Pip is standing a few feet away, looking at me. My arms are wrapped around a large, rather flat rock that I’m cradling like a teddy bear (or if I’m being honest, a Popples, or a Figment) and the rest of my body is splayed out, completely blocking the trail. Apparently, I found this nice cozy rock and laid down to snuggle it, and fell asleep in the sun. It is 8am, and my phone has something like 9% battery left (do you remember when there was mystery to gas tanks and phone batteries? Now you always know how many miles left and how many seconds left and what is the fun in that? I used to never have any idea when my phone would die. Although, since I still drive an ‘89, and the gas gauge has never worked properly as long as I’ve had it, so I guess I still have some mystery there. And what’s the fun in driving, really, if you always know exactly when you’re going to run out of gas?). Is my life a little *too* exciting?

 

I’m hiking again, and I’m quite miserable and stiff but in slightly better spirits. Once I reach Twin Lakes, I know I only have 8 miles left. Each step is blindingly painful, but hey, 8 miles is better than 13! It’s more than the five I wasted this morning taking a wrong turn to Interlaken (WTF IS INTERLAKEN? And WHERE does the trail ever cross 82!? I still don’t know). I wander around Twin Lakes looking for the Jeep road that links back to the CT. I had done this before, but I stopped before I reached Twin Lakes itself. Now, I realize I don’t know just exactly where it comes out. I meet a group of old folks, who in the typical old folks/small town way, give me these directions “Follow this street, see, to the pitch. Climb the pitch, cross through a gully then a ditch, then take a right. But don’t be too eager with that right or you’ll end up trespassing. Be patient about that right turn, you hear?” And they stride off, clearly in better shape than me.

 

I climb the pitch, cross through a gully, then a ditch, arrive at a road, and turn right. It dead ends at someone’s garage and I realize I’ve not been patient enough, I backtrack. I patiently wait for another right, and as it materializes I see a through hiker, who confirms I’ve found the right, less eager, right turn. I shuffle up the climb from 82. Zombie, zombie, zombie. After all, there’s nothing to do but walk the eight miles back to my bike stashed at the Elbert TH. Nothing, nothing, nothing else to do. I start to see through hikers who are, relative to me, bright-eyed and chipper on a sunny, blue-skied morning. We great each other warmly. They don’t ask me what I’m up to, struggling like I’m dragging my hapless body through honey and wincing as if a dozen miniature miners are hacking into my feet, looking for valuable ore that they might sell to fancy bike manufacturers. And I don’t volunteer it.

 

A few miles later, I’m taking a break on the side of the trail with my shoes off, knowing it’s too late but looking at the ruins of my feet and hoping I might prevent it from continuing to get worse with each step. A woman approaches, another through hiker. She asks, “What are you doing?” so sincerely that I tell her exactly what I’m doing, or what I’ve just done. The short version, which is something like: I climbed Mt. Elbert by the standard route, then descended southwest over Bull Hill to Echo Canyon. I crossed 82 and climbed La Plata in the evening, and descended to Winfield. I took the CDT to Hope Pass, crossed through Twin Lakes, and now I’m here, trying to make my way back to camp, to close the loop. I was out all night. I have trench foot (of course, I left in these important details, and I am exhausted.

 

“Wow! What an accomplishment!” She says. I’m so tired. Zombie, zombie, zombie. For miles and hours, or hours of miles, the trial of miles, miles and miles of trials, I though about what had gone wrong. About how lousy I felt. About how poor of shape I was in and how un-resilient my mind was. About how I had accidentally come to run and walk and stagger for 50 miles. I say, “Thank you.” She goes on her way and I put my shoes on with no wet socks anymore, I get up and shuffle. I know she’s right. I think about how my GPS track laid over a satellite map on Strava will tell so little of this story. I laugh out loud.

Hope Epic Zombie Loop & Wild-Cat Ideas pt 1

“’I suppose you have got one of your wild-cat ideas.’
‘Yes, I have,’ Earnest owned, smiling a little, ‘at least you will probably think it’s a wild-cat idea.’”

I was camping at Half Moon, two miles from where the Colorado Trail crosses it and heads up towards Mt. Massive in one direction and Mt. Elbert in the other. I had already done a series of small loops by utilizing the CT, loops I’ve done before and loops that I hadn’t yet thought of. I’m not sure where the loop thing came from, but suddenly I’m obsessed with loops. I guess, I hate the inefficiency of a one-way, which necessitates getting rides and stashing cars. But an out-and-back is even less appealing, especially when you’re doing parts of the Nolan’s route. It’s all the Grand Canyon’s fault, really. Those damn well-organized and maintained bike paths and extremely convenient shuttles would ruin the thing for anyone.

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From La Plata, looking SW at the ridge I would take to the basin

So that’s how I suddenly came to think, what if I left from my campsite and did Elbert and La Plata on the Nolan’s course, then used the CDT and the CT to loop it back (I’m still relatively new to Strava, you guys, and just imagine what a loop like that would look like overlayed on a satellite map! Damn Strava, it’s your fault, too). You know how you get an idea and it’s obviously the best and most brilliant idea you’ve ever had? I mean, I was planning a run. A rather grand run, but still. It played up in my mind. I must run this wonderful loop! And in the way of all the best and brightest ideas, I planned extremely poorly and set out as soon as I could.

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From Massive, a couple days before I did the Loop

The first week I had been back in Leadville, I did 25,000 feet of elevation, which wasn’t unusual for my training, and I was so exhausted that I was cutting every run short and existing in the world like a zombie. I took two days off, because I could hardly imagine how I could get out to run at all (I’ll talk more about this in the next post, which will be called something like over training: How to Lose Everything). Then I made a hard effort on Elbert, and the next day I planned to do my loop. Without doing the math or looking anything up, I had loosely added up miles in my head and determined vaguely that the loop was probably somewhere in the 30’s. As I had just done the Broken Arrow in 6:28, I imagined that such a loop should take me 8 to 12 hours, making allowances for what I expected to be rather poor snow conditions (and poor, they were). I packed my headlamp, some bars, and an emergency blanket in addition to the stuff I normally carry on mountain runs (shell jacket, life straw, sunglasses) and rode my bike to the north Elbert trailhead. At, like, 10:30am. Alpine starts are for organized, responsible people who want to get back at a reasonable time and avoid afternoon storms. “And you, button, are none of those things.”

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from Elbert summit

It was a beautiful day and the Elbert ascent went fast and easy. I cruised over the summit to the confusion of startled summit-sitters and passed a large group of annoyed teenagers that had probably come from the Black Cloud trailhead on the talus, before I dropped out of sight, off trail, toward Bull Hill. I got a view of the ridge. “I’m worried that the snow conditions in the basin off La Plata will be so bad I’ll get stuck.” I said days ago, to a friend who knows the route. He said, “No, Hope Pass is going to be the snow crux.” We were both wrong, I thought, as I looked over the steep slopes covered in heavy, sun-wet snow just begging to slide off the ridge to Bull Hill. As I traversed I also descended, aiming for lower angle snow at least to cross in, knowing how steep it was above me. I kept thinking, I should turn back, I should turn back, but I thought, no it’ll get better, it’ll get better as it got worse and worse. Because I couldn’t find a place to safely ascend Bull Hill itself, I went further south and tried to ascend its south ridge. As I climbed the snow towards it, I could finally see the cornices at the top, and the cracks in the snow beneath them. At this point, Pippa had already crossed over and I knew that was the fastest way out of this situation. So I did, too.

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Bull Hill

As I predicted, on the other side of the corniced snow was bare tundra and rocks and the Bull Hill descent was no trouble at all. As I crossed 82, I looked at my mileage so far and realized that I had under calculated. But, that’s ok. Even if it adds up and I end up at 40, it’ll still be okay. But, if I don’t want to go on, I should really decide that now because this is probably the point of no return. Once I cross over La Plata, I’ll be committed to this loop. Committed, I was. Because of my late morning start, I hit the La Plata trailhead late enough that I only saw one group still making their way down on the 100 switchbacks. We stopped to chat about dogs and weather and things, and one of the guys said, “I bet you could still make it to the summit if you pushed it.” Hahahahaha. It was 5:45pm. I said, “Well, I sure hope so because I’m going over to the other side.” I hoped, at that point, that I’d make it to 390A on the other side of the SW La Plata TH before dark, as I was still worried about the unknown snow conditions and also about route finding in the basin.

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the ridge to Bull Hill

“What’s on the other side?” He asked, incredulous. I thought for a moment, the probably snow-filled basin? 390A? Winfield? Salvation? A cold, honest night alone in the mountains? “Nothing at all.” I said, and went on climbing, my thighs were burning and progress slowing. My first yoga teacher was always saying when a pose was hard and your legs were burning, it’s “Burning Enthusiasm.” Because you can choose it to be burning enthusiasm instead of burning misery. And the burning, besides, is what burns up all the garbage, all the thoughts and worries and fears and past you’re gripping, tapas, the physical struggle, can burn them out and leave you alone with yourself. Each slow step burns and I try to think, “Burning Enthusiasm.”

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from La Plata, looking west at the setting sun

I had started thinking about what I’d call the loop. I love naming routes. And the longer and more strenuous they are, the more you suffer and the more the mountains abuse you, the easier it is to just know suddenly what they should be called. Something always pops into mind, or makes itself apparent. At this point, after the carefree, sunny Bull Hill descent and the casual, if slow, La Plata ascent, I had in my mind that song that’s by Fallout Boy or Panic at the Disco that the chorus is like, “Always had high, high hopes …” [we’ll see if I remember to look up the lyrics to this song, because you know how you can get a catchy song stuck in your head just from hearing it on the radio or in a store or something even if you don’t know exactly the words?] And of course, it seemed obvious to use a play on Hope Pass, as that was the hinge that made the loop possible. I trudged upward as the sun got lower in the sky, oblivious to the miles adding up freely and much more quickly than my harried math had allowed for. “I’ll call this the High High Hopes loop.” It’s a lot easier to be positive and delighted when the sun is still up.

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This is my GPS track, up until the point my watch died partway up Hope Pass

The ascent took so long that I rushed down the talus towards the basin, just blindly hoping to get off that heinous trail and onto the road before dark at this point, thinking that once I was, any potential troubles would probably be over and I’d be easily navigating clean trail in the dark. My knees were really bothering me, and I was exhausted. Still exhausted from last week or the altitude or whatever it was that had been hindering my performance. Like everyone that’s crossed the threshold and is suffering from over training (but do not know it yet, because they do not wear a heart rate monitor regularly as God and Steve House agree everyone should), I believed I must be unfit and continued to push harder to make up for it. I arrived at the steep gully I had to descend into the basin, the place I was worried about the snow being the most dangerous. But, I was in luck, because though full of snow, I could skirt it and come down on undesirable but not particularly dangerous very steep mud instead. I switched to snow as the angle lessened at the bottom and skated a little into the flat part of the basin. It was completely full of snow, like the end of a bowl of Cheerios when you had piled on white sugar at the start, and now it had soaked in milk for the 10 minutes or so it took to eat the cereal.

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I know I already posted a similar picture from La Plata looking SW but I’m out of pictures, these were the last I took

Unlike milky sugar, however, the approximately two feet of snow was just a front to disguise a foot, and in some places 2.5 feet, of standing water and willows. And the snow, being what, July? Was not weight bearing at all. So with every step, I broke through the wet, granular snow and into the standing water and tangled willows and the sun continued to set. “Don’t give in to the sadness, Artex!” I yelled at Pippa, but Pippa is Pippa and she frolicked and rolled and thrashed about in the Basin of Eternal Sadness as happy as a Pippa could be, as that’s how Pippas do. Just when I was accepting my fate, that I would live here forever, until I died here, I came to the edge of the snow and happened upon the trail. The trail that would weave down between the cliffs and the river and carry me to 390A, the dry Winfield promised land. It was when I set foot on this beautiful road that I looked at my watch and realized, while I had also under accounted for the miles on both the Elbert and La Plata traverses by a few, I had not included a single mile of 390A or the CDT that would take me to Hope Pass in my mileage number. I tiredly tried to add in my head, guessing mostly but knowing that from the top of Hope Pass, I knew for sure I’d have 13 still to go. …And miles to go before I sleep.

The sun was setting, I was soaked to my thighs, I had a half a bar left, and I was getting painfully near the 12 hour mark (upon which my Garmin watch would give up and die, as anyone would after working constantly for 12 hours, even a tiny computer), with an end that wasn’t nearly in sight. Suddenly I could hear something, which was crazy because I hadn’t seen anyone since those folks on the other side of La Plata which felt like days and many conditions and mental states ago. There was a large group, with maybe five or six tents, camped near the road. A bunch of 30-something front-rangers were talking and laughing and playing that bean bag game and drinking beer and playing music. The music was Zombie by the Cranberries. (To be continued…)

Turn to the Sky/Losing a Whole Year/F*** You, Heather

I’m reading Steve House’s book about the mountains. Not about training for alpinism, but the one about his adventures. And I notice that all those tempestuous storm clouds have turned pink. The sun is setting and I go outside and walk up to the top of the hill and I’m basking in the glow, then suddenly I sink down to my knees. My tears are so hot it feels like I have a sunburn. It’s cold outside. It almost feels like winter. I forget that leadville is like this. I’m not done thinking about this year but the weather feels like it’s wrapping up too fast. Im not sure I know yet exactly who I am.

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So why did I choose running? This wasn’t the first time I learned this lesson and I was all set to choose climbing, I had gone down that road so far I was about to make a career in it, and the certifications I worked so hard to get were certainly not cheap. Then I threw it all away at the last minute, for running? For that smug bitch Heather!? [You’ll meet Heather later. This is called foreshadowing, and it’s making you more likely to read on, apparently. Maybe.] The reasons that I’m not a better climber pile up: they are the Himalayas of excuses. My chest feels tight. Love is physical. So is fear.

 

My first trip to the Tetons was with my friend Chris. I remember we went up one night to the lower saddle of the Grand, or almost up there. On the way down, we sat on the talus and looked at Irene’s Arete. It was and maybe still is the most aesthetic line I’ve ever seen. I had never felt that way about a rock climb before, it doesn’t even lead to the summit of anything! [However, it is one of the many aretes of everyone’s favorite Teton, Disappointment Peak!] That thing is the dramatic, smooth prow of the coolest, most badass pirate ship that you want to be on. It was the first time I had ever looked at just a rock climb, not a mountain, and thought, “I want to climb that.”

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DCIM100GOPRO

I haven’t. I’ve been back to the Tetons three times after that and I have not climbed Irene’s Arete. Why? I don’t know. Rock climbing scares me. You know what happens when something scares you and you neither do it nor face your fear? It gets fucking worse. You know what else scares me? People. Trusting new people, getting to know them. I looked through Mtn Proj a bit when I was in the Tetons this year for partners, and just said, “Nope.”

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DCIM100GOPROGOPR0830.

So I was reading this trendy self help book, because they’re like Pringles, and the girl said to think about your hero, then imagine what they would do when faced with the same decisions. Once you start, the fun don’t stop. So I thought about my heroes. Mike Libecki is the first name that comes to mind, don’t even need to think about that. Brette Harrington is the second. Of course I thought about Kilian, also Jessie Diggs, Andy Anderson, and Nick Elson, sometimes Steve House. So the thing about this list of people is, and I don’t know them personally, but I don’t think a single one of them would say they’re primarily a runner. Some of them are runners. But I don’t think even Kilian would say, “I’m a runner.” if you asked him what he does. I think for a moment, what if I had made all of my decisions thinking, WWMLD, What Would Mike Libecki Do? Put on an animal mask and said, “Why ration passion?” And I laugh, why indeed?

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I pulled this photo off the internet so you could see what I mean, pc Mike Libecki 

I can remember the first time I felt like I knew I was risking my life. It was physical. I don’t have a very good memory. Actually, I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I can tell from other people’s reactions over the course of my life that they think my memory leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t remember what we’re fighting about if it goes on for more than one day. I forget dates, like birthdays. I forget if ive told a particular person a particular story (although, you can tell me your stories over and over because I probably won’t remember them after a certain amount of time). I forget what happens in books and movies so I can watch the same ones over and over and not even realize it sometimes. Anyway, I have a physical memories that are so visceral that I will never forget them [who can forget being charged by a bear? Really.].

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summit of South Teton

I remember the first time I climbed a mountain and I thought, “I would die for this.” it was South Teton, and I was alone. You’re always unproportionately scared when you’re alone. But as I scrambled up this loose and snow filled gully, it wasn’t the first time I assumed risk and did something dangerous. It was the moment I realized the level of risk I was assuming and I said, yes. I will. It was a great relief, like a low pressure system moved in and the sky itself put less pressure on my body.

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I remember what it felt like the first time Chris and I climbed Middle Teton, gained the ridge to the north and suddenly stood face to face with the Grand Teton, it was like I could open my ribs up like Hanuman and anyone could see my heart beating for it. I remember standing on the summit of Harvard, and being able to see the entire Nolan’s line in both directions and finally understanding the aesthetic of that line, each summit lighting up like the Plinko board and it was as if I could feel the routes and the summits and all the miles I’d spend on them cumulatively, it was like my heart grew outside of my body and wrapped itself around this mountain range like a bubble. I remember falling into a crevasse on Rainier (like it was yesterday!) I could feel the blackness yawning beneath me, and of course the melting relief of getting down safely, every cell in my body vibrating with joy, nearly exploding like tiny fireworks when we got back to the parking lot and sang “We didn’t die! We didn’t die!”

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DCIM100GOPRO

I’ve had some good ones running, too. This isn’t anything against just running in general, it’s against Heather. Don’t forget. I remember the first time I ran up something so hard that when I summited and stopped moving, it felt like my whole body evaporated into the air, and I swear I could feel wind pass through me, gravity clearly not being strong enough to hold my cells together. I remember coming down Elbert so fast, my toes barely brushing the ground and I felt like I was flying. I can only vaguely remember any of the races I’ve done, the most memorable things being, of course, the vomiting and the pain.

me on elbert

I’ve stood up, walked back to the truck, and laid down in the back, on my belly, on top of the sleeping bag. I have Steve House’s book open before me [actually, it’s on a Kindle, if you’re really trying to picture this, and I’ve got a forkful of eclair that’s hanging precariously in the air] and I’ve just read “Now that I’ve finished it, I am afraid I may have failed. Failed to answer questions such as why I take deadly risks, why I leave home for months at a time, and why I routinely spend my savings on air tickets to remote lands. But I see success in degrees, and failure provides valuable lessons. The depth of any story is proportionate to the protagonist’s commitment to their goal, the complexity of the problem, and the grace of the solution. Success must never be assured.”

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My chest gets tight, which, not being something I feel very often at all, is immediately uncomfortable. It feels like my ribs are closing in on my heart and lungs. I read on, “When I stood on the greatest summit I’ve ever achieved, success vaporized. The moment we think we have atained the goal, we lose it. Success is empty. The sum of all our luck, judgments, lessons learned and heeded, elevation gained and lost, our fitness and skill is zero.” the forkful of eclair continues to be suspended in midair, so near my dumbfounded mouth, but so far.

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The universe puts things in your way when you need them. I would’ve read this book ages ago but I didn’t know he’d written such a thing. I’m cried out, I guess, probably too dehydrated for more tears as the altitude is ravaging my body once again. I’m always thirsty. It’s clear now in that one word, success. My mind is waging a war of ideals, and this year, success won. It buried what I wanted to do, it asked me to bleed for it. But mountain running is an honest sport. I’ve given the same advice to several people regarding their first ultra, “You need to know what you’re fighting for, because when you really start to suffer, your mind will do anything to make you stop, and if you have nothing to fight for, you will.” the values or ideals I had around success asked me to lay my body down for it. And I didn’t.

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I mean, I didn’t stop, I finished the damn thing. I’ve thought a lot about what the most important value is to me, and I know it’s Never Give Up. That’s the thing I aspire to be, and when I am that, it’s what I’m the most proud of. I’ve now spent a lot of time thinking about what happened in that race. Didn’t I give up? I described it afterwards as, “I blew it, and I knew I was blowing it, and I didn’t care.” It took some suffering to really polish up my underlying motives and see what I was up against. There I was, asking my body for something that I wanted, SUCCESS, but that I also knew I didn’t really want at all. Gosh it’s hard to explain, and certainly I’m writing all of this because it’s helping me work through it more than you care to know this much about the inner workings of my warped, forgetful, prideful, obsessive, but at least devoted brain. I finally eat the eclair.

 

[Let’s give the-values-or-ideals-I-had-around-success-and-pride a name, and that smug bitch shall be called Heather, not because of anyone I know personally named Heather, but because I recently watched Heathers.]

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When Heather asked me to destroy my body for her, I didn’t. My mind struggled with this a bit, and mind you, at this point I was what? 6,000ft of climbing and somewhere around 17 miles in? I thought, if I don’t pull it together now, I’m going to be a failure, I’m going to be humiliated. Like I’m suddenly the center of the universe and anyone cares about the nonsense I get up to! Heather asked me, “But what about your dreams!?” and I thought, THIS? Heather, is this my dreams? I have a big long list of dreams and “climb a long Jeep road to nowhere as fast as you can because if you’re better at it than other people, you’ll get some kind of recognition for being strong.” is nowhere on the fucking list. Actually, when I think of the list, I’m ashamed, because I didn’t do a single fucking thing on it this year and instead I wasted all my time on …. Ugh, we’re back here again. No, I don’t regret it, because I had to know. Now I know. [Fuck you, Heather!]

 

I hope I go back through and edit this before I post it and somehow make it funnier. I’m not sure how, but I aspire to do that. Although, Steve House is basically never funny, so if I thought right now, WWSHD? It wouldn’t be, go back through and make your writing funnier. Ugh but if I thought, WWMLD? It totally WOULD be, lighten this up a little. Why my heroes got to be conflicting me like that? I’m not sure how, but this is all Heather’s fault.

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No, actually, you know what? Heather, that asshole, wanted me to fight for something that is not in line with my values, but is moreso culturally ingrained in me. But I stood up to her, despite that it meant I’d have to walk away with nothing, whether anyone else cared about it or not. And muddled in there with the moping and failure and waste and feelings of nothingness, also the identity crisis and the crushing lack of confidence, I actually am proud of that.

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I went climbing a couple times this week. It was hard. Some of the time I felt strong, some of the time I felt weak, some of the time I felt frustrated, some of the time I felt inspired. It’s just like anything else that’s worth doing, I suppose. Heather showed up on one pitch, and I wondered if I’d always be fighting her, trying to trick her or slap her or pull her hair and hoping she’ll leave me alone to pursue what I actually want. This was certainly not our first fight, but at least I know her style better now. I’m starting to learn her weaknesses. I climbed a new mountain the other day, during a linkup of other mountains I’d climbed before. It was like, 13,9-something which means that it has no trail and never gets climbed, despite being less than 100 feet off of being a coveted 14er. I looked out at the inifinite mountains, over the Sawatch, towards the Elks. I closed my eyes and I could feel the pull of the space between earth and sky; the groundedness in my feet on the summit’s talus, the lift of my heart to the sun. I get this feeling a lot, but it’s still my favorite. I think, “This. I will do anything for this.”G0031035.JPG

[And there’s no sign of Heather anywhere]

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1,400 Miles

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.

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winter in Ouray

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:

  1. Finally committing full time to training and racing
  2. Personal projects
  3. Guiding

 

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.

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This post has a disturbing lack of its own pictures, this is from the Mt. Whitney Portal, where I ran 180 miles

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.

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I don’t have photos from SLC, I took this yesterday

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.

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I don’t have any photos from Broken Arrow or Speedgoat. This is just me running in my Speedgoat shirt in Jackson, photo by Mark

““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.

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From just below the saddle of the Grand, taken this year

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.

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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.

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looking SW from Disappointment Peak

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.

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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.