Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Honest Understanding

If I’m honest, the mountains scare me.

When I first visited the Adirondacks as a young kid, I had a sense that some malevolent spirit hid in the peaks above and valleys below. Years later, when I was ten, my father and I got caught in quick moving hail and lightning storm ascending Tuckerman’s Ravine. I remember huddling around some rocks, convinced I wouldn’t make it off the mountain. At eleven, I faked altitude sickness on a family hike up Lone Mountain in Montana to turn around. On the same trip, I refused to climb the Grand Teton. I was too scared.

Even today, when I head to the mountains for runs, I am scared. Will I get hurt (or worse)? Will I suffer? Will I not be “fast”? It is this last fear that plagued much of my “competitive” running career. Am I really “good”? What if I’m slower than I think I should be? Why can’t I do “better”? A focus on times and “winning”, for me, meant it was impossible to escape these doubts and fears. They would always lurk in the back of mind. It’s why I would run races or long test-pieces like the Pemi Loop and feel bad after. My times weren’t good enough, or I could have gone faster. I should have trained smarter, or longer. I’ve slowly evolved over the past four years, but it wasn’t until three weeks ago, that I came to an honest understanding of these fears. I think.

. . .

The roads and trails around my house, in greater Boston, provided the grounds for a personal epiphany: Runs are usually measured in time and/or distance (genius, I know). Those are objective: “The watch doesn’t lie.” Easily communicated to others, a way to see if I am “good” via comparison. If I wanted to be “good” I needed to be the fastest. On this particular run, muddling along a trail I’ve run countless times, focusing on my breathing, hearing the sound of each footfall on the dirt, thinking about nothing and everything at once, I was able to articulate a new understanding of why I want to run long distances: Not for these objective measures, but to seek engagement in the present moment. I want to be fully conscious of what I am doing. Instead of seeking a win, or a faster pace, I want to seek presence. Use running to accept any situation and not judge it as “good” or “bad,” but be open to what it is. That seemed like a worthy ambition, one that could bring more meaning to my life than the time (or distance) on a watch. Those nagging fears, the worry about not being “fast”, or getting hurt, or not being “at the top” became irrelevant (except, maybe the getting hurt one . . .) if my goal was presence and awareness of what I was doing. Audacious goals seemed possible, because they were about a process, a focus, a conscious effort.

With this new mindset, I reserved a spot at Carter Hut, and a space on the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiker shuttle, both for the first official day of my summer vacation. Six years after my first attempt, when I sought the FKT with a friend, and one year after scouting the route with another friend chasing the FKT, I was returning to the Hut Traverse, seeking something very different along the 48-mile route connecting AMC’s eight mountain huts.

. . .

Friday, June 29, 11:44 PM. I didn’t even need an alarm to get up.

The forecast in the White Mountains for Saturday, June 30th was calling for unusually high temps, summits in and out of the clouds and afternoon thunderstorms. Weather for the day of my Hut Traverse “Enlightenment Quest” 2018 looked about as good possible (Sunday was calling for record heat). I’d waffled between a midnight start and a “more reasonable” 4:00 AM start, but when the body woke up shortly before midnight it was ready. A moonlight traverse of the northern Presidential Range was in my future. But there were many miles between here and then. At 12:06 I was moving. At 12:06:30 I came to a dead end at the Carter Hut woodshed, decidedly not the right direction.

Take two: 12:08, on the correct path, stars visible, clouds suggesting a nice day above treeline. I’d packed much more than I needed, my pack weighing close to 15 pounds fully loaded with water, emergency gear, and food. I found comfort in the added weight, knowing that, should anything (short of the worst) happen, I would be able to take care of myself (given the hospitality of the Hut Croos, I would have brought much less with me, especially given the forecast. An extra pair of socks would have been nice as well - 14+ hours of wet feet led to some interesting blisters). The pack bounced on my back, but the night was calm. The air was sticky, and even running downhill, after a short time sweat and moisture dripped off me. Two cars passed on Rt. 16 just before I hit the road. It was still “Friday night” for some people and my day had just begun. The Great Gulf Trail crossed the Peabody River, the bridge giving a slight bounce to each step. The air off the river provided a moment of natural air conditioning. For the first six or seven hours I was determined to breath in and out through my nose, a technique that would keep my effort aerobic and measured. It had the added benefit of taking in the ever-changing smell of the trail (and later, my ever changing smell. Not sure if that was a benefit).

Conflicting advice found me standing at the junction of the Great Gulf and Osgood Trails in the middle of the night. Should I go to Madison Hut (the second of the eight visited) via Osgood, maintained as part of the Appalachian Trail, and the “not so great” Parapet Trail? Or take the more direct, albeit ridiculous (in very good and difficult ways), Madison Gulf Trail? I used the pause to eat, to think. I chose Madison Gulf, a trail I’d been up and down before.

Three weeks ago I would have been frustrated by my time up Mad Gulf. It seemed to take hours to get up (It did. 3:18 from Carter, an hour slower than friends have run it on their Traverses). The trail was lost in the dark multiple times. It was overgrown down below, making footing difficult to see, the headlamp’s beam reflecting off branches inches from my face. Focusing on breathing in and out through the nose, I was calm. The night was stellar. The smells from the river, from the trees (that were slapping my body), from the rocks, all enthralled. I drank (with a filter) from a small waterfall that was crossed. The goal was the hut, but this trail, the conditions, was the reality. The world reduced to the bubble of the headlamp. I was present. Time was irrelevant to the reality. I climbed the part of the trail I call “the cliff,” knowing I was getting close to treeline. I crested the ~30 foot climb and had to duck under, what, exactly? A hammock? How could I be hallucinating this soon?

I’m lost. I was looking for the Hut, and couldn’t find it. I thought it would be on the Madison Trail so I followed this. It’s just . . . this trail. I’m 70 years old. This trail is too hard. Will I reach civilization if I go down?
It was probably around 2:30 in the morning when I came across this man, camping in his hammock, lost and (rightly so) in dread of the Madison Gulf Trail. I should have done more. I talked to him, offered food, offered to bring him to Madison Hut with me, told him how to get out to Rt. 16, but ultimately, after he declined all of these things, I left. I didn’t even leave a note for the Croo at Madison. My goal. The Hut Traverse. It was still there. Was this a test? Should I have been present enough to recognize helping this man may be my journey now. My ego held fast. I didn’t know what else to say. I kept moving from this spot, quickly returning my attention to the trail, my breathing. Foolishly, I did not even ask the man’s name. If I’m honest, I’m disappointed in myself for that.

. . .

Friday, January 26, 2018. 2:44 PM. On Monday, January 29, 2018, I would be launching Intrepid Academy, an outdoor-semester program for students in the Boston Public Schools based at Hale Reservation in Westwood. We are in the middle of what will be a more than eight hour meeting to prepare for Monday, the culmination of nearly six years of planning and thinking to bring my love of running and the woods to the students I work with. A phone call from the headmaster of my school. I take it outside at the fire ring just outside of Powisett Lodge, where I’ve started races and held TARC Camp:

Josh, I have here a letter of involuntary excess. We are looking for someone else for the History position.
This is Boston Public Schools speak for “You’re fired.”

If I’m honest, I was disappointed in myself. I didn’t (and still don’t) know what exactly I had done to cause this, but my first two thoughts were, one, what this meant for Intrepid (I was assured it didn’t affect it at all, although months later the school decided not to participate in the program again), and two, I’ve just let down everyone who has worked so hard to start this program before it even had it’s first day.

Monday, January 29 was a practice in being present. Focus on the students in front of me, not the uncertain future, or the surprising news from Friday. The rest of the semester was a study in antipodes, polar opposites. It was the most fulfilling semester of teaching I’ve had, something that was not totally clear to me until the end when students shared their experiences and personal stories of growth. It was also the worst semester I’ve had, full of fear and self-doubt, believing I was a sort of cancer on this program that I had worked to create. I was a failure. If I’m honest, I was lost, and I didn’t understand what I’d done to get there.

. . .

The story of the opening days of Intrepid Academy mirrored my arrival at Madison Hut. I was happy to have made the first inter-hut distance. Yet I was at least 45 minutes slower than my expected pace. Years ago, and to some extent still to this day, I wanted to be “the best.” To be the fastest and swiftest runner. I can still feel how my body and mind would have reacted to this “slow” arrival to Madison just a few months ago. It is almost like a surge of rage that builds in the gut, builds into the shoulders, before clouding my mind, becoming almost a sense of panic. Usually the result is trying really hard to “make up” the time. But time wasn’t the aim. Presence, simply “being,” were. I did not experience the angst and rage building as I slid into Madison.  The Hut, first built in 1888, silent, save a few snoring guests. Water refilled, in less than four minutes I followed the bubble of the headlamp into the northern Presidentials, watching the nearly full moon dance in and out of clouds, peaking in and out from behind the ridge above me. My late arrival, my “involuntary excess” were not good or bad. They just were (alright, I’ll admit, the “involuntary excess” thing felt really bad). Right now I was moving through the mountains, not impacted by either. I was moving, eating a chicken sriracha jerky bar at 3-something in the morning. I was choking on a pepper flake that just got stuck in the back of my throat. I was coughing from that pepper flake. I was drinking water to wash it down. It wasn’t good or bad. It just was.

Looking back along the shoulder of Mt. Adams to the first hint of twilight. Lights from (I believe) Gorham, NH can be seen on the left.
The northern Presidential Range is a place that is worth spending much more time. In the dark I followed a path, sometimes the correct one, with exquisite trail work of carefully placed stones paving the way, sometimes the correct one, with a jumble of rocks dumped there by creation, and other times the wrong one, with sharp rocks that shifted underfoot. The approaching day was echoed by my forward progress, twilight emerging behind the peaks on the horizon. At one point, I could tell I was caught in alpenglow, the rocks, small plants, my hands all bathed in that particular golden, pink light. Headlamp off, the twilight of day emerged, fog and clouds clinging gray and wet to sections of the trail, only to be broken by the ever-brightening dawn.

Clouds and fog danced over the peaks as dawn emerged from night. Shortly after this I was bathed in alpenglow, the magical light illuminating everything around me.  The colors were more red than shown.  
Rounding the shoulder of Jefferson, along the saddle to Mt. Washington, I looked off to my left and there, perfectly framed by two piles of rock, the very thinnest sliver of the sun, burning so far away, rising a deep red over the mountains far on the horizon. For several minutes I stood in awe, appreciating that had my speed been any faster or slower up Madison or across the Presidentials I would have missed this moment. I would have had another, equally valuable one in its stead, but this moment . . . Wow was I could muster. Lake of the Clouds. Mizpah. Zealand Falls. Galehead. Greenleaf.  Lonesome Lake. Each Hut after this, and the space between, brought its own moments. But this one site, this experience of absolute awe, was held in my mind’s eye all day.  And the days since.

A sunrise that technology could not capture, a moment of absolute awe that filled the soul.  The rising sun, here in the center of the image, was not orange as shown, but a red like the color of the Japanese flag.
The remainder of the day's journey, draped in early morning fog, laid before me on the shoulder of Mt. Washington.
The summit of Mt. Washington shines in the early dawn light, as fog lifts from the valleys portending the day's heat.

The last picture I took of the whole journey. Shortly after sunrise, looking south along the ridge of the southern Presidential Range. Lakes of the Clouds Hut was less than 30 minutes away. Along this ridge I experienced a moment of perfect flow, cruising the beautiful trail, seemingly having the entire Presidential Range to myself.
For 80% of this journey I succeeded in being present in the moment. A moment of flow in the southern Presidentials, bathed in early-morning light. Gratitude for the Croos at each Hut who welcomed me and made sure I was fueled and happy before going about serving the guests in their charge. Joy in the fluidity of movement along the A-Z and Twinway Trails. Coming across Dima and Karen, and walking with them for a couple minutes. The happy voice of Eleni, a friend who I don’t know as a hiker or runner and hadn’t seen in over a year, calling my name and bringing me to a halt in utter shock to see her, there.

Cresting South Twin and seeing my dad, “Papa Richie,” in his Western States hat and TARC100 shirt, the former where he looked after me, the latter where he looked after others, volunteering as an overnight doc for the inaugural event. He had reserved a bunk at Galehead (the 6th of 8 huts, marking the beginning of the Garfield Ridge trail, arguably the most grueling section of the Hut Traverse), and hiked up Cape Cod chips, two cans of Coke, and cold-brew coffee that the Croo graciously kept in their fridge. It was not until I wrote these words that I got emotional thinking of this, my 72-year-old Da, who introduced me at an early age to the mountains, to environments that I feared, but have now come to love and appreciate, still worrying about me, doing what he could to help me along. He must have done the same all those years before as the storm came in on Tuckerman’s Ravine. He stayed on South Twin as I descended, and I sat in the hut, munching chips and sipping Coke, in a happy daze, vaguely reflecting on what I’d experienced over the past twelve or thirteen hours. Fueled by the love I felt, I experienced the easiest climb I’ve ever had up Garfield, a mountain that is anything but easy. I finished the climb and immediately thought, “All I have is Lafayette.” And that’s when I lost the present moment for the first time all day.

Knowing Lafayette was the last peak, I became solely focused on finishing the climb and “being done.” The journey between Garfield and Lafayette was the longest, most grueling I’ve ever experienced on this stretch of trail. The miles seemed to never end. I just wanted to start the long climb. It never came. I kept going down. Then it was flat. Finally up! Here it is! No. Down again. Then flat. If I ever felt frustration or anger all day, this was the only point. It was my old mindset - cover the ground as quickly as possible. “Win.” My feet had been wet for about 12 hours and blistered. My shorts and shirts had been soaked all day from the high temps and humidity, leading to excessive chaffing along my back. These things bothered me now. I was failing because I wasn’t going fast enough. 

The summit of Lafayette eventually came, as it always does. I sat there, looking down at Greenleaf and Lonesome Lake Huts, places I had visited with my sons the year before, the rest of my route laid before me, the way paved by the happy memories of those trips. Four miles of downhill running were in front of me. But I didn’t want to move. Blisters running half the length of my foot had developed on the bottoms of both feet, nothing to be done about them because I had no dry socks, the skin macerated from the constant moisture of the past fourteen or fifteen hours. I sat next to a gentleman who was hiking the Appalachian Trail. For 24 years he had been walking a little bit at a time. This week he was doing the Whites, covering much of the route I'd just traveled. I’d waited a mere six years to finish a Hut Traverse and was just a short distance from the end. I looked back to the East at the path I’d taken that day. The lost hiker. The pepper flake in the throat leaving Madison. The Croo member cooking breakfast at Lakes who took a break to offer up some cornbread. The Croo at Mizpah, in the midst of the breakfast rush, taking time to find me some food. Bill, the former Croo member from the '60s, who I’d met last year at Madison, and saw again at Zealand, encouraging me. Grace, the Croo at Galehead, who put those Cokes in the fridge. I turned to the trail ahead of me, where the journey continued. My feet hurt, I was moving slow, but all I could do was concentrate. “Now. Here. This.” The mantra that had carried me through much of the day. Time was not the objective. Presence. Awareness. “Now. Here. This.” I touched Greenleaf, and carried on down the trail.

. . .

The final 1.6 miles to Lonesome Lake marked the culmination of a six-year journey. The trail was steeper than I remembered, and I laughed when it seemed to never end. Six years ago I approached this run as a training objective, the goal of going under 12 hours paramount to all other objectives.  At the time, a worthy ambition, I'm sure.  Still, as I ran the last 0.4 (flat) miles of trail, a section I had walked after dinner the previous August with my younger son Jacoby, when we spent the night at the Hut, I couldn't help but be happy, my time well off that elusive 12 hour mark. I ran the short hill to the hut and stopped the watch. I went in, and was greeted by the Croo, who were busily getting ready for dinner. I managed something like, “I just came from Carter," and was provided a yogurt-quart jar of Tang, the magical orange elixir (why hadn’t I been drinking this all day?). I went to the porch, laughing to myself as I looked back to the Franconia Ridge and the summit of Lafayette, where I had just been, talking to a man who has been working on the AT for 24 years and still had a couple years to go. I laughed because for so long I had put so much value on this one day, on finishing this route, and on the time I could do it in. Listening to dozens of families playing games and enjoying the place, oblivious to what I'd just done, I came to understand what Kevin Sullivan, a top-10 finisher at Western States had told me years ago when I had a disappointing finish there: “These things don’t matter.” He was talking about the races, the time on the clock, the place we finish. I finished the Hut Traverse in 17:33, several hours slower than I’d thought I would finish. It didn’t matter. I had been present (almost) the whole day. I hadn’t felt fear or worry. The time didn’t matter. The presence, the experience, did. And just like the man on top of Lafayette, I realized that this journey doesn't really have an end. Just a now. Of the beauty and magic of the Hut Traverse, I cannot say more.

. . .

Just don’t die. The words my older son Cooper, who two days before had turned twelve, left me with as I started the drive to the White Mountains on Friday morning. Sage advice, and I’m more than happy to have followed it well. I returned to the Hut Traverse to seek presence, to see if I could set aside the competitive self and face ego-driven fears and doubt, finding new meaning in the act of running through the mountains. I believe I found what I was looking for.  Looking forward, I hope to bring this presence to more runs through New England, and test myself on longer trails like the Bay Circuit and Long Trail.  But those are not Now. Here. This.

They say in mountaineering that the summit is only halfway. The real goal is to get home safely. I’ve often forgotten this idea as it relates to my running. A win, a finish, a course record, a competitive result were always the goal, forgetting about what it meant to “bring those things home.” That is the goal now, to bring the conscious presence I had along those 48 miles and 17 and half hours back “home,” back to the everyday. That challenge is my honest understanding from the Hut Traverse.


The Hut Traverse is steeped in history and I find it enthralling in ever way. Perhaps one day I will return to see if I can get a faster result, if that that is what a day would hold, but at this point, I think the FKT (currently at 12:38 for the route I took, 12:11 for the even more challenging "MacPhail Route" discussed below) is beyond my reach.  Physically it is demanding. Mentally it can be draining. It covers some of the most incredible places in the White Mountains. But the stories of how it came to be, the people who early on blazed fast times, and the people who today continue to use it as a test piece are some of the most inspiring and mind-blowing tales I know of for trail and mountain running. The Huts themselves are so incredible that if you’ve never had the chance to stay in one, I highly recommend it. They have old log books from at least 50 - 60 years ago, and going through those is an incredible experience. Yes, they are expensive (kids stay free at Lonesome Lake during the summer!), but they are a great way to experience the White Mountains. The history of this route, the places, and the people involved is so compelling, it is worth spending some time delving into it!

To learn more about the Hut Traverse, I’d recommend the following resources: 

Klauss Goetze, describing the adventures of his son Chris (a legend in the Whites, who died too young, but helped establish a tradition of pushing limits in the mountains) in the late ‘50s. I love this story and have read it several times for various reasons, not least of which is that it makes me appreciate family. Read it here.

I am willing to argue this is one of the greatest ultra-running accomplishments ever: Alex MacPhail’s 1963, 12:11 Hut Traverse.  His brilliant recounting is here. This story makes my jaw-drop every time I read it. (Note: Bill, the AMC volunteer I ran into last year at Madison and this year at Zealand, worked with MacPhail during the 60s and he mentioned that MacPhail had run from Lakes of the Clouds to Zealand Hut in 2:10. That time is insane. I had just done it around four!  I’ve been lucky enough to email with Mr. MacPhail several times about the Hut Traverse and last year, at Madison, got to flip through the old log books that have records of his incredible feats, as well as the day the helicopter landed at Madison on his birthday!)

Jeff List’s webpage is a wealth of resources and detailed information about the different variations of the route. Jeff crewed for Scott Traer and myself on our first attempt in 2012. A wonderful human being who is a total badass in these environments and mountains.

Adam Wilcox has some brilliant trip reports here, here and here (this is an incredible winter traverse! Adam is seriously hardcore!).

Andrew Drummond (the same one featured in Scott Jurek’s new book with the trail name “Special Forces”!) has a post with great pics, describing his journey from Lonesome to Carter here.

Thursday, July 27, 2017


Shoulders and head sunk toward the trail as the first hint of light painted the ridgeline east of Gulf Hagas Mountain.  The combined fatigue of a missed-night’s sleep and the near-continuous effort of the past twenty hours beckoned for one to lay down.  Sleep. Succumb to the siren’s song. This was twilight.  When the light from the brightest day fades to the deepest night. When the darkest night yields the most brilliant day.  At what hour do we stand?

Will Day Dawn?
It's 100 miles to help.
Perhaps because of the name, or it’s reputation as the longest stretch of the Appalachian Trail without a paved road crossing or resupply option, the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine has captivated my imagination for years.  Months ago, the idea of running the route began getting tossed around by friends.  Thanks to one Mr. Michael McDuffie, it happened, logistics planned brilliantly.  Rob Rives and myself would join him in Monson, ME on Friday, July 20.  A shuttle, courtesy of Phil “Quadzilla” Pepin, who runs the 100 Mile Wilderness Adventures and Outfitters, would bring us two hours north, to Abol Bridge, 14 miles south of the terminus of the AT on the summit of Katahdin, the morning of July 21.  If all went well, we would finish sometime on July 22, or early on July 23.  100-Miles, unsupported, through some of the most remote and gnarliest stretches of trail you can find, with the goal of going under 48 hours.

We began at 7:20 AM.  Spirits were high reading the sign cautioning, “It is 100 miles south to the nearest town at Monson.  There are NO places to obtain supplies or get help until Monson.  Do not attempt unless you have a minimum of 10 days supplies and are fully equipped. This is the longest wilderness section of the entire A.T. and its difficulty should not be underestimated.” We each carried about 9,000 calories.

Goofiness belies the fact that I was scared as hell.
The juxtaposition of this warning and our buoyant attitudes and excitement over having started this journey poetically express the angst and fear I felt going into this run.  Self-doubt came through in the dire warning of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. The crux of it?  I had done nothing remotely like this in nearly four years.  Could my mind handle it?  Would my body?

It was the context of this thought that worried me the most. Four years ago, I was good at running really long distances. After a series of setbacks and medical issues, I’ve doubted I can do it any more. I dropped at mile 92 of my last 100-mile attempt in 2013, to spend the night in the ER with rhabdomyolysis.  There are no ERs in the 100-Mile Wilderness.  A busted ankle, a broken leg, a stick in the leg (which has happened to me before, in the Whites), pee that is the color of motor oil, all become bigger problems when you’re running this route.  I did not want anything to befall me for my own sake (and that of McDuffie and Rob), but also for my family, who no doubt would worry about me throughout the entire journey.  I began the day weighed down by a healthy dose of fear.

I also began the trek weighed down by a pack of at least 17lbs (I had weighed it the night before).  When I used to race, the goal was to run as fast as possible, which means carrying as little as possible.  Shorty shorts, a handheld water bottle (maybe two), and that was it.  Much less than 17-18 lbs.  Rob proved an excellent teacher though, and talked about limiting the “bouncing” and “bumps” to save your legs for later in the day (and night, and next day).  For the first time ever I actually understood what it means when people tell you to “make the first 30 miles feel really easy” in a 100. We cruised up Rainbow Ledges, floated along the sides of rivers and lakes (if only the one below Rainbow Ledges were named Unicorn Lake . . .).  We caught views of Katahdin.  A beautiful day had emerged from a twilight of self-doubt.

Our first water stop.  At this point, Rob, McDuffie, and myself were running more or less together.  Rob and I, who continued on together, wouldn’t see McDuffie after about mile 13.  Photo: Rob Rives

(Rob on Rainbow Ledges with the view back to Katahdin).
(Rob on Rainbow Ledges looking forward and celebrating the land of our little adventure).


The first ~50 miles of the 100 Mile Wilderness south bound follow spectacular lakes and gorgeous rivers and streams.  When asked for a single word to describe his experience on the trail, Rob summed it up as “Water,” because it is such a defining characteristic of the landscape throughout the wilderness.  The trail is punctuated by a few short climbs, some rocks, some roots, but is mostly just absolutely enjoyable terrain.  One stretch of pine-needle blanketed single track was running nirvana, and seemed to stretch for miles.  We passed AT thru hikers, and even families with small kids (despite it’s name, and the dire warnings on either ends, there are several points that folk can relatively easily access the “Wilderness.” Still, aside from the one area where a group of pickups were parked, it feels pretty darned remote).  As we ascended what is likely the largest climb in the “front-50” we passed a group of teenaged girls, blasting out a brilliant acapella rendition of My Heart’s A Stereo.  Naturally, we joined in.  Not sure Thoreau would approve, but it lifted the spirit and brought a smile.

Near the mileage-based halfway point of the run lies one of the many shelters built for AT thru-hikers. Studying the maps of the trail, this spot had immediately popped out, not only for its location, but its name, Cooper Brook Falls Lean-To.  My oldest son is named Cooper, the last name of my mother-in-law, who passed away in March.  It was a personal goal to reach this point feeling strong (I did), and before sunset (Rob and I turned on our headlamps about 15 or 20 minutes after cruising by). "Cooper" was a milestone, for it marked my longest effort in years, and if I somehow managed to get there, I had convinced myself that for the rest of the trip I’d be running “home,” back to my family.  As night fell and darkness enveloped the world around us, my spirit (and very bright headlamp) guided me down the trail, connecting the White Blazes of the AT back to Monson, back to Cooper.  Twilight may have lead to darkness, but Rob and I both were looking forward to the magic of a night traveling through the woods.

Psychological boosts can come from the smallest of things.

Twilight 3: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

- Dylan Thomas

I am drawn to this sort of endeavor as an opportunity to feel “powerful,” my way of “raging” against complacency and routine.  I lead a fairly unremarkable life, but these journeys, these are a big part of how I come to feel remarkable.

Rob atop White Cap Mountain in the middle of the night.

The night was magical. Cloudless. Quiet. We travelled together, our entire world reduced to the bubble of light before us.  Time seemed irrelevant at this point.  The bubble of light, the trail, the White Blazes. This was our reality until the sun came up.  Forever forward.  Up White Cap Mountain, the highest point of the trail, along the “Stairway to Heaven.” Can we get there before 18 hours?  Push.  17:56.  False summit.  17:59!  The Big Dipper sat on top of the mountain with us.  Stars all were within our reach.  The beauty of the cloudless sky, the wind singing over the rocks the only sound.  A beauty and brilliance so profound, days later it seems to be a physical presence inside of me.  Down the trail, the cone of the headlamp our world.  Maps do not convey the technical terrain.  The going is slow, but we descend West Peak, nearly done with the whole range.  A brief stop for food and to shed a layer.  Rob a mere 15 feet back on the trail, but it seems like 40 feet higher than me.  Quietly through Signey Tappan Campsite, hopeful not to wake the sleeping hikers.  To the saddle of Gulf Hagas Mountain.  The sky is brilliant, dark, and deep.  We have miles to go before we sleep.  Do not let the hour or the dark deter us.  Press ahead, into the coming light.  Rage against the night.
That is a lot of moose poop.  The trail is kind of overgrown here.  This is where a moose is going to crush me.  Rage, rage against the dying of optimism, of hope.  Negative thoughts have no place here. The bottom of Gulf Hagas. I am really tired.  Let’s just take a quick breather here, two minutes, and get some food. Eyes wanted to close.

Shoulders and head sunk toward the trail as the first hint of light painted the ridgeline east of Gulf Hagas Mountain.  The combined fatigue of a missed-night’s sleep and the near-continuous effort of the past twenty hours beckoned for one to lay down.  Sleep. Succumb to the siren’s song. This was twilight.  When the light from the brightest day fades to the deepest night. When the darkest night yields the most brilliant day.  At what hour do we stand?

For the first time since beginning the 100 Mile Wilderness adventure, the body and spirit offered protest against their mission.  A deep desire to keep eyes closed and rest consumed all thought, thoughts cloudy with fatigue, muddled by a creeping negativity.  With the dawn came the terrifying realization that this was very far from done.  Why not stop? Right there.  A dark time, and a dark place, but for the profound beauty of the moment, that faintest brush stroke of a new day, barely illuminating the highest ridge of the mountains. Night held fast to the sky above, in a beautiful, cloudless dark, scattered with the brilliant stars.  The soul recognized the effort the body was putting forth. This was twilight, a moment caught between the light and the dark.   

Light or Dark?

Daylight, just over an hour away, felt impossibly far off.  So did Rt. 15 in Monson, some 40 miles ahead.  I had secretly hoped to cover 27-30 miles overnight.  We covered 20.  The trail had gotten much harder, the terrain steeper, more technical.  We’d been awake for 24 hours, running nearly 22.  All I wanted was to sleep, to lay down.  Rob, whose unflappable optimism and good nature impressed me as much as the trail itself, suggested I could nap when he cooked a hot breakfast for himself shortly after sunrise. The promise of lying on my back, eyes closed, head propped on my pack, tugged me, slowly, into the day.  I knew the darkness had won, but sleep was coming.  Just a little further.

We ran slowly, as the trail flattened out, gradually descending along Gulf Hagas Brook.  The light in the woods shifted and I started running faster, easier.  Soon, headlamps were turned off and, as if some benevolent sorcerer had cast a spell, the desire for sleep, the compounding fatigue, the niggles of pain felt throughout the night, all disappeared.  It was a new day. We only had 40 miles to go!  We might be able to finish this right around 30 hours.  

Above Screw Auger Falls, breakfast was made, Rob with his hot food, me with peanut M&M’s. Feet were meticulously washed and the blisters that had developed early in the run, immaculately and painstakingly “fixed.”  This sort of luxury had never been taken in any of my previous runs, but with the new day, the beautiful setting, it was a joy to know that I was doing something proactive to help make the final push.  Day had breathed renewed life into the body and I imagined finishing around 2 or 3 PM.  Feet fixed, breakfast eaten, we slowly started the homestretch of the journey, letting our bodies warmup after an extended break.  Within five minutes we were jogging slowly, chatting for the first time in hours, clicking the miles off.  

The West Branch of the Pleasant River (along with several others) must be forded on this journey.  It happened about 10 minutes after we left our breakfast/foot clinic location.  My beautiful tape job for naught. We were able to laugh at the absurdity of it.  Spirits were high, feet were wet, but we continued on, my bandages no match for 50 yards of river.  Alas, there were less than 40 miles to go.

(Crossing the West Branch of the Pleasant River. It was very slippery.  Had perfectly patched feet for 10 minutes before.  They felt really good during that time . . . Photo: Rob Rives).

Twilight to the deepest, darkest night: “These mountains are fucking relentless.”

The Barren-Chairback Range. Where souls go to die.  Approximately 11 miles in length, with climbs that seem impossibly steep and terrain that is maddeningly slow to traverse.  Up Chairback Mountain we still had reserves of humor to ascend the absolute ridiculousness of the talus field.  Rob joked, “It could only end this way,” the mountains placing an absolute exclamation mark on our journey.  Third Mountain offered a brief respite from the absurd.  The view of our previous night stretched before us in perfect sunshine.

(Sometimes, there is beauty in suffering.  The hard-earned view from Third Mountain, looking back to our journey the previous night).  
The descent from Fourth Mountain and the ascent of Barren Mountain were the dawning of the darkest night for me (although it was a cloudless day).  As Rob commented, “These mountains are fucking relentless,” the front of my left ankle, for all the flexion, stopped working correctly, and was visibly swollen through the sock.  Every step hurt. Every downhill was becoming a struggle.  The top of Barren marked 18 miles to go.  Sleep demons had me in their clutches.  It may as well have been another 100 to go.  My head spun with fatigue.  The world spun when I closed my eyes.  We had likely been moving at less than 2 MPH for much of the last several hours. At that rate, we wouldn’t finish until . . . the math was getting fuzzy.  The 2,000 foot descent of Barren was excruciating.  

“Are we there yet?” “No.” Battered on the descent off Barren Mountain.
The top of an unexpectedly steep climb of nearly 1,000 feet, shortly after descending Barren Mountain, is where I threw my pity party.  I was in pain.  We had 14 miles to go.  It was impossible. Rob was out of water and after making sure I’d be okay (my head was spinning with fatigue again - not a bonk sort of spin, just a, “Lie down and go to sleep!” sort of spin), continued down the trail to the next water spot, where I’d meet him.  

I am not proud of how I carried myself these next few miles.  For the first time ever, I was screaming and cursing out loud on the trail.  “I JUST WANT TO BE DONE!” was yelled at least twice.  Every step was accompanied by a grunt of physical pain, of emotional anger and frustration.  I was disappointed in myself.  Self-doubt. Why had I thought I could do this? I am broken. Was there a way to bail?  I was so close, but I didn’t want to, no, couldn't, continue.  I feared the death march, I feared taking another 14 hours to finish this, I feared the shame and embarrassment I'd feel at failure. The pain and fatigue were all consuming.  Rob and I were both hallucinating at this point (which, considering my general state, was actually the one enjoyable piece of this time).  Beach umbrellas along rivers, kiosks, trail signs, animals, and people in the woods.  As I ran the mile to the water stop, I saw "Rob," at least twice, sitting on the side of the trail, waving his trekking poles.  He wasn't actually there. At one point I asked (the real) Rob if he could see the Christmas ornament in one tree. “No man, that’s not there.”

The other thing that was not there was my focus.  The twilight of fear and anger and doubt had consumed me, leading to the night of pain and negativity.  I knew this. To finish, to leave the suffering as fast as possible I needed to change.  It was frustrating to think about our pace and the pain. With the last, and deepest, reserves of optimism and self-control, focus shifted to every exhale, using the energy and force from that to strengthen the ankle.  Within minutes of this mental transition, a strange pattern, where I’d inhale, and then take a protracted exhale, while making a sound like, “SSSCCCCCHHHHHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWWWWW” (almost like “Shoe”, with a very hard emphasis on the last syllable) began. It was, at best, bizarre, and I am grateful Rob said nothing, because the pain in the ankle didn’t bother me anymore.  If I’d stopped the pattern, the pain returned.  So, for the last four or five hours of our journey, I put myself into what was probably the deepest meditative trance of my life, doing this breathing pattern with nearly every step.  I was able to run (apparently right by a giant waterfall without noticing) without anger, with an acceptance of the pain.  I could feel the ankle and knew it wasn’t well, but the pain was gone.  

These last hours, these last miles, existed for me in a state of perpetual twilight.  Positive and negative emotions, good and bad, did not fully exist, but were ever present, ready to fill the ambiguity of my consciousness.  At one point, running a brilliant stretch of single-track, I had the strange sensation that my body was part of the world around it, moving in absolute harmony with the earth, myself a simple part of the larger whole. It was not good or bad.  It just was. No longer was I working to “conquer” the 100-Mile Wilderness, or had I been "conquered" by the trail, but was focused on the most basic act of moving, the more basic act of acceptance.  As we got closer, and I felt the pull of the “finish,” those excited emotions were held at bay, focusing only on inhale.  Exhale.  As we crossed Leaman Brook, I briefly pointed at the sign telling us U.S. 15, and the finish, were 3 miles away, and ran. We ran in silence, save my strange breathing.  Inhale. Exhale. “SSSCCCCHHHHHEEEEEEWWWWWWW.” I caught a glimpse of the MATC warning sign saying you must be prepared for 10 days of travel from where we had just come, and we ran to it together.  50 yards later, we reached the parking lot. 35:32. Done.   

Done. Basically.  We still had 50 yards to go, but this was a good photo op.  Photo: Rob Rives.

As we sat in the parking lot, incoherently calling loved ones to say we had survived, texting McDuffie to see where he was (we had not seen him since mile 13 or so, and he would not finish for another 24 hours), a truck pulled up.  “You two need a lift?  You look like you’re sorta melting into the rocks there.” “Poet,” the owner of Shaw’s Hiker Hostel, had happened to see us from the road and kindly drove us to his place where we were plied with hot food and cold drinks, and made to feel like rock stars as we recounted what had just transpired the last 36 hours to a number of AT thru-hikers. I have not spent much time in trail towns, but after finishing this burly run, to know there are such incredible people out there willing to support people reaching for seemingly quixotic dreams, well, it is a mighty fine chance to feel good about the world.  The twilight of this run yielded a beautiful day (and a brilliant night’s rest!).  


I had never undertaken something of this magnitude before: an unsupported 100-mile run through a wilderness setting.  Four years ago, I believed was the “twilight” of my running career, my ability to achieve audacious things stymied by physical limitations.  More than any other run or race, the 100-Mile Wilderness seems transformative.  Not only did it force me to master long-feared demons, but to confront and control immediate emotions and physical pain.  Rob was a brilliant mentor, and for that, I have few words.  Many other friends have helped me, this year in particular, feel strong and capable of even attempting something like this, from urban adventure runs, to the Tully Trail, to the Hut Traverse, to Joe’s Jaunts (and jaunts with Joe), to strength training, I would not have achieved this goal without the help of so many people.

The recounting of the experience is deeply personal, so I cannot speak for either Rob or McDuffie and their experiences.  I can say, that this is the proudest, and probably most difficult, athletic achievement of my life and that I got to share it with two of the most remarkable human beings I know.  I spent the entire journey with Rob, including two long car rides, and witnessed his possession of an unending store of optimism and grace.  He is the sort of person who will bring incredible good into this world, and make people smile while doing it. He stuck with me through a very dark time, and I will be forever grateful at having shared this adventure (and the car ride both ways), with such a remarkable person.  And McDuffie.  Next year’s edition of Meriam-Webster will feature his picture (with flamin’ red, borderline illegal, booty shorts) next to the word perseverance (and coincidentally, that same picture will be used to define pornographic, hot pants, and indecent).  He is unlike any other, and I would not have had the courage to do this if he had not made it happen. I am incredibly lucky to count him as a friend.  

The whole time we were running, I had to hold my fear and doubt at bay, and be singularly focused on making it to Monson.  The night I left to meet Rob, my younger son, Jacoby, had a temperature of 103.6.  I was ready to call the whole thing off, if I’m honest, a bit relieved I wouldn’t actually have to do it.  But Liz, and even Jacoby, pushed me to go.   As Jacoby said, “Dad, it’s just fever.  I’ll be fine.” I love his attitude, but I was scared as I drove to Vermont to meet Rob.  Scared for my son, scared at what I would be doing. Every "What if" imaginable presented itself to my consciousness. My family, without being asked and with me just doing it, sacrifices a lot for me to have the time and focus to work toward these goals.  It consumes a lot of my time, energy and emotion. I don’t know how I can share my gratitude for that.  As I ran, I was terrified that I would get hurt and not be able to get out, that I would ruin their lives along with mine. It was the unsure twilight between going gentle into that good night by shying away from doing the things you’ve dreamed about for fear, or actually doing it, taking the chance, and giving it a run. On this trip, twilight proved the harbinger of a beautiful day.  I look forward to the next adventure.  

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mercury In Retrograde

Just let me get the races started, then I'm going to tell you a story that will make your (yeti) balls shrink to the size of raisins.

All week in my head I had been paraphrasing Spike from Knotting Hill, rehearsing the telling a self-indulgent tale of woe that would illicit great sympathy and nods of awe from an enthralled audience.  I had promised Alyssa Adreani, co-captain of the Start/Finish aid station at the TARC100, the first telling of the epic, at 6:05 AM on Saturday, October 10, just five minutes after the TARC 100K commenced.  I was eager to share, in part catharsis for the absolute absurdity of the previous five days, in part because Alyssa is (by nature and trade) an incredibly compassionate person, and I knew she'd appreciate the tale, and in part because I simply wanted people to hear how crazy my week had been.  The 100K started.  6:05 passed.  My story did not commence.

- - -

Thirty-six hours before, on Thursday afternoon, I had been in my classroom, hurriedly packing and cleaning, as I would be out the next day to prepare for the TARC100.  Getting home for my son's soccer practice was my last grasp at "normal" before the race-day whir of directing a 100K and 100-miler began.  As I stacked the next-day's papers in place and zippered my bag to exit, Ed McCabe, a great friend and partner from the Boston Rowing Center, entered.  Ed and I can spend hours discussing education, outdoor experiential learning, and life in general. This was the first conversation we've ever had that I've had to cut short, and I explained what, at that point, had been the previous 3 days as an excuse for not having the time to talk.  Ed, in his old, sea-dog sort of way, looked at me with his piercing, ocean eyes, and said, "Look brother: dont' worry.  I don't know what you think about astrology and all that shit, but let me leave you with two words: Retrograde Mercury." He went on to explain the idea, which I will summarize as such: Mercury in retrograde is an astrological phenomenon that makes shit bad.  Everything. Not one to believe in such snake oil for 99.9% of my life, the absolute farce of the previous days left me open to any sort of vaguely-plausible explanation.  Mercury in retrograde. There it was.  The best I could do. "And the best part, my friend?" Ed ended his explanation. "It's all over tomorrow." That was something I could embrace.  Mercury in effing retrograde and it effing ends Friday night before the race.

- - -

Immediately following the yeti howl marking the 100K start, I felt a bit of weight lifted from my shoulders.  As an RD, the bulk of the work was now turned over to the team, and I knew they were incredible (I will never be able to capture exactly how impressed by and grateful for everyone who helped make this race happen I am (I have tried multiple times already). Knowing how incredible most of them were going in, high expectations were shattered. Countless times). So, with runners several hours away, I was truly looking forward to sitting down and recounting the drama of the last week to Alyssa and the assembled audience of the start/finish crew.  I was actually smiling in anticipation.  As I met up with Alyssa, ready to weave the tale, my attention was stolen, "JOSH! We've got one last runner for the 100K!  He showed up late!  Can he still start?" Well, of course! A quick selfie with said runner, and he was off, into the dawning day, chasing those in front of him. And then we had to show the crews who would be trailing the runners all day how to get to the various support points. Story time was further delayed. 

Those very runners and crews are the ones who thoroughly changed the narrative I am telling now.  Leading to race day, the narrative had been defined by chaos.  By a series of events, each more absurd and implausible than the next.  If one of these had happened to me in a decade, it would have been par for the course of my life. To have all of this happen in just a matter of days?  I came to expect bad things to happen.  Yet, as the race clock continued to tick away the minutes and hours, so the day chipped away this narrative of negativity.  As the sun rose, it illuminated a new narrative, one encompassing of the entire human experience: lose and suffering, of those whose imagined race was stolen away, by a bad fall, a turned ankle, or an uncooperative psyche; joy, in the smiles and wry comments from those on course, from those volunteers who could act as goofy and preposterous as we all secretly wish we could but conventional social norms prevent us from being; to passion and grit, on the faces of runners half a day and more into the race; love, emanating from the volunteers to the runners, from the crews to the runners, and from the runners in return; and triumph, as each finisher crossed an arbitrary line, redefining what is known to be possible and impossible.

Every chance I found to tell my previous tale was interrupted.  There were more pressing needs to attend, happier moments to recognize and celebrate, more delicious food to "sample" and serve, other, more important tales to tell and hear.  As night fell on Saturday, a campfire was lit and an intrepid band of souls hunkered down for the hours until the sun would rise again. In my mind, I saw countless generations of humans sharing in this act.  Perhaps our ancestors had not been running 100K or 100-miles, but they had gathered, they had told stories, and they had celebrated the greatness of others before and amongst them. Through the night we stood vigil, waiting for those out on the run, those out on the "hunt" (for what exactly, only they could really know).  When they returned, we cheered, we comforted, we sent them back to the fray, to again await their safe return.  For the first time in the three years of the TARC100 I did not feel a deep fatigue during this night-long ritual.  Fatigue, and the accompanying despair it can often bring, were absent, replaced by a deep sense of gratitude for all those I was sharing this experience with: for each volunteer, sacrificing their time and energy (and sleep!) to help others and doing so with such grace and passion. It was beyond inspiring.  To every runner, who made me appreciate the great focus and determination it takes to raise the bar for yourself. And to the families and friends of each runner, who I know sacrifice much more than we often acknowledge, to allow us to chase these invisible barriers and boundaries, and then are there to make sure it happens.  I've heard that a race is a celebration of everything that came before it.  On this night, I truly learned what this means.  

- - -

In the very earliest hours of Sunday, shortly after the 24-hour mark of the TARC100, I finally had a chance to tell Alyssa the tale that would shrink her yeti balls to the size of raisins.  Even as I told it (and, to be certain, I told it with some relish), in the back of my mind, the story of my "suffering" over the past week, had lost its luster.  What I had seen and experienced over the previous 24-hours, in the 100-mile stare of runners, in the tears shed by competitors and their families, in the celebrations, and the positive energy that flowed around the course, made me want to tell a different narrative.  It made me want to tell this story, the one about how a group of people can take something of significant personal value (running a race) and turn it into a manifesto on humanity.  Turn it into a statement that, despite the pain, the suffering, the negativity that too often pervade our society and world, we are, even in very dark moments, able to move forward to what will be an outcome worth celebrating.  

Perhaps my prose has become hyperbolic or cliched, but, lest my sincerity be doubted, a mere 32-hours before the end of the TARC100, I had gone through what had been, quite possibly, the single most absurd week of my life.  By the end of the race, none of that mattered, and, despite (or, perhaps, because of) having only had two hours of sleep in the previous fifty-six, I was acutely aware of that fact.  I was genuinely happy and grateful for all I had seen transpire.  I was genuinely in awe of every person who had been involved, in every capacity, to make this race happen.  

As I gathered the very last load of gear to return to my house Sunday afternoon, I found myself alone for the first time all weekend.  The beach at the start/finish area had been cleaned and I stood in the dimming sun, staring out across the pond, to the changing foliage reflecting off the water's surface.  My eyes teared up, as I thought about what so many people had just done.  About what so many people had just shared over the previous day and a half.  I had been privileged enough to share a small part of each of those journeys.  All traces of our tragedies and triumphs had been erased, and that I found to be the most beautiful part of all: To the rest of the world, what was done at the TARC100 will be of little immediate consequence.  But for me, and I hope for most that shared in the journey, it will serve as a reminder of the need to strive to do great things.  Not for ourselves, but for those around us.  For those that support us, and for those who will one day need our support to "cross that line," however they define it.  It is in those actions, outside the confines of a race, that we will make such things as the TARC100 of great consequence to rest of the world.

I left the race in time to coach the last half of my son's last soccer game that weekend.  I could barely keep my eyes open, but seeing those kids run and play and giving them high-fives as they came off the field reminded me of all the runners I saw cross that line.  It had just been hours before, but felt worlds away.  And still, it was intimately familiar.  

Driving home from the game, fighting the sleep demons that were now firmly rooted inside my head, I started to laugh (probably a little deliriously): Effing Mercury. In effing retrograde. 

This had been a 100-mile journey that had brought me to an entirely new world.