Earlier this year, a woman I barely knew told me via text that I had done so many “Amazing things” and that I seemed to “Live life to the fullest!” She wondered if I wouldn’t mind writing a short story that she could share with other runners that would explain my “why”; the reason I do the things I do. That woman was of course Kimberlee Guin, the race director for Outback in the Ozarks, a 200-mile adventure relay race that I had participated in last October. I immediately told her I would be happy to and then set about procrastinating for 4 months.
It’s not that I didn’t want to share my motivations, it’s that I didn’t truly believe my “why” was any more unique or special than anyone else’s. Who among us hasn’t faced obstacles or struggles in life that conspire to bring us low or to break us altogether? If you are reading this column, there’s a pretty fair chance you yourself are a runner, triathlete, or other kindred spirit adventurer who feels the call of the road or the wild in much the same way that I do. It is a common thread that runs in our DNA; a small, primal link in the helix that relates us in a way that blood cannot. It is why we seek out others who share our passions and goals, we nod or wave to each other when we pass on the road or trail, and we high-five total strangers at the end of a race. If you are a member of this open and inclusive tribe, you know the rites of passage include dedication, focus, and a commitment to achieving your goals. Oh, and a subscription to Runner’s World and a GPS watch help as well!
My goal here is not to tell you why you should become a runner, continue being a runner, or to promote any particular race over another. Everyone has a unique path and your reasons and motivations must be your own. The experiences that cultivate your desire will lead you to the destination you were intended to reach. I plan to simply share some personal background in an attempt to frame some of the insights that I have gained in the relatively short period of time that I have been actively involved in the sport. As I previously stated, my “Why” will be different than yours, as it should be. However, I believe that the confluences of events that create our separate, individual experiences are also what bind us in our shared existence as athletes.
Athlete. That’s not a word I readily use to describe myself. I grew up in Van Buren, in northwest Arkansas. Other than playing on some grade school basketball and softball teams and a little football occasionally, my sport of choice was being in the woods behind our home. With an older sister and a younger brother, I spent much time exploring these woods by myself, running solo. When my family moved back to Tulsa, Oklahoma during 6th grade, I never really re-engaged in sports. I enjoyed running, but it was an activity that got me from point A to point B, not something I did recreationally.
I went through periods where I became aware that I was faster than other kids when we did run, but never thought anything further about it. In eighth grade, the track and field coach asked if I would like to join the cross-country team in running the 5K at the Tulsa Run. I asked how far that was andwhen he told me I just laughed and said, “No, thanks.” I think back on that vivid memory even now and wonder just how hard “present-day me” would have had to work to talk “eighth grade-me” into signing up.
Late in high school, I was introduced to one of the most enjoyable, exciting activities I had ever done. Rock climbing, rappelling, and small-time bouldering became a minor obsession and took over my spare time. My love for this potentially dangerous sport carried with me into college and was a source of confidence and unfortunate hubris that I soon shared with new friends and acquaintances. Climbing was something I was reasonably good at in reality, but in my mind I was a total rock star.
Life has a way of imposing balance. Every rising tide is countered by an ebbing outflow. Every action results in an equal and opposite reaction. What goes up must come down. In October of 1994, shortly after my 20th birthday, some like-minded college buddies and I were returning from a long weekend trip to Dallas. It had been a good trip. We had stayed in a cheap motel, went to Six Flags, and participated in all of the other activities young, single males enjoy, some to excess. At this point in my life, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I was living semi-independently in a different city than my family, making decent grades when I tried, playing intramural football, and occasionally slipping out after dark for a late-night run just to kill the time. At that age, you couldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Not on top of the world, but pretty stinking close.
On the way back from Dallas, my buddies and I stopped to check out this climbing spot near the Arbuckle Mountains we had heard about. Having none of our gear and wearing sneakers and cargo shorts, we hiked back into an area with some decent cliffs and started climbing. I had done a lot of free-climbing before, without ropes, no one on-belay, but life was about to impose a little balance. The old saying that pride cometh before a fall turned out to have a quite literal meaning for me.
I was evacuated by helicopter from the backcountry area to the nearest hospital where the medical team began taking inventory of the injuries I had sustained from free falling 85 feet to the rocks at the base of the cliff face I was on. Not having researched the location and brimming with confidence, I apparently reached an area at that height where the rock face transitioned to brittle shale. No one ever told me if the piece that broke off the wall was still in my hand when I fell.
They say that the brain has an emergency ability to block out the memory of highly traumatic events and I can testify to this truth. I have no memory beyond starting the hike from the parking lot into the backcountry until a brief snippet on the 2nd helicopter flight from the rural hospital back to Tulsa. I will spare you the gory details of the various procedures that I experienced during the following weeks that I was hospitalized other than to say that my hubris had been “balanced” by a crushed pelvis, punctured and deflated lung, broken ribs, and a lacerated spleen.
I was released from the hospital in a wheelchair with the encouraging news that I would most certainly require a total hip replacement in 2-10 years and that there was a high likelihood that within 20 years, I would be confined to a wheelchair permanently. The toll this takes on the psyche of a young, healthy person entering the prime of their lives is difficult to describe. I spent months not walking at all or on crutches and then gradually learning to walk again. I was unable to bathe or care for myself and I slept in a rented hospital bed that my parents had brought into a bedroom adjacent to theirs in our home. During this time, I discovered there were vast numbers of people who cared for me and my family and they went out of their way to make sure we had what we needed.
It didn’t matter. The damage was done. In my mind, my life now had an expiration date that could be marked at somewhere near the 40 year mark. I felt as if the tall, strong, oak tree of my perceived existence had been chopped on by a lumberjack to the point where it was no longer a matter if I would fall, but when. This despondency created a darkly shaded lens through which I would view my life for some time. I eventually returned to school, but my heart wasn’t in it and I bailed out after another semester or two. I moved back with my parents and wallowed in a destructive, self-pity for a while until life once again struck a balance.
A chance meeting during a poker game at a friend’s birthday party brought a savior into my life at a time that can only be epitomized by the use of such a dramatic word. My pride was non-existent and my self-esteem so low that I couldn’t bring myself to say much to her. My future wife called me a few days later and asked me out on a date. I honestly thought it was a setup; a cruel prank by a mutual acquaintance that was not above such things.
Fast-forward 20 years and my life could not possibly be more different. This December, Patricia and I celebrate 19 years of marriage, every one of which can be regarded as as an invaluable learning experience for me. She has had the patience and wisdom needed to help resuscitate every aspect of my life, restoring my self- confidence, my energy, and my lust for all the experiences life has to offer. I will be forever indebted for her kindness and love.
About 7 years ago, I found myself happy and successful with a 3 year-old daughter that I loved unconditionally. I also found myself on a scale staring down at the numbers 2, 8, and 5. I was winded just trying to keep up with my little girl and was suffering from the myriad of aches and pains that accompany an unhealthy lifestyle and body weight. When you spend your 20’s and 30’s hyper-focused on career and family, you tend to shed the ancillary things that get in the way of progress.
Friends, health, and even some family had fallen to the wayside as I’ve done what has to be done to provide for my family’s health and well-being. The modicum of success achieved has come with collateral damage and I’ve only recently recognized this and begun to do something about it. On New Year’s Day, 2010, I made the same resolution that millions of others make when a fresh calendar is hung on the wall. I would lose weight, get in shape, regain control of my body, and impose some self-discipline! I joined the sweating crowds of people that swell the capacity of gyms every January and began my journey.
I started small and added a little at a time as my body would allow. All cardio, all the time. Bit by bit, pound by pound, and inch by inch, I was shocked to see significant results both in the mirror and on the scale. The gym got to be less crowded and I added an elliptical at our house. One year later, I was 50 pounds lighter than when Auld Lang Syne had been sung the last time! This was great! Dr. Atkins and Billy Blanks and Chuck Norris had all been right! But seriously…when is Chuck Norris ever wrong? Diet and exercise were the keys that opened my eyes and the door to the rest of my life.
Gradually, I started experimenting with running around the neighborhood or at a local park. When you haven’t run for a while, or for years in my case, it can be a pretty brutal shock to discover your much-prized cardio fitness and endurance are not even close to what you thought them to be. Nevertheless, I continued and gradually got better. In a karmic déjà vu moment, my cousin asked if I would like to join her in running the Tulsa Run 5K that year, the same race the track and field coach asked me to run many years earlier. This time I didn’t hesitate. We signed up, I trained, and showed up at the starting line not knowing what to expect. Although it seems a lifetime ago, I can still vividly remember waiting for the gun to go off and promising myself that no matter how slow I ran or how hard it got, I was going to run the whole way. This promise kept screaming back to me as my breathing became ragged and my legs started feeling spongy. When the finish line came into sight, I forced myself not to shed tears. After my personal physical history, running an entire 3.1 miles seemed the equivalent of summiting Mt. Everest!
I was immediately hooked! The endorphin rush, the sense of accomplishment and the camaraderie among total strangers linger as some of my favorite parts of running and racing. A month later, I was already entertaining the thought of doing a triathlon, because…why not? Since that first 5K, I have completed multiple marathons, half-marathons, triathlons, duathlons, and any number of other distance races and have truly enjoyed every single one. I look forward to each one as if it’s something that I’ve never done before. Unexplainable.
So now, after this long discourse, I return to the original question Kimberlee posed to me back in April: “Tell me why you run?” The answer to this question seems to evolve as I get older, but the gist is this: Running is my way of participating in my life again. Running is a community, a lifestyle, and I was proud to join. It is a tribe of like-minded individuals and some of my favorite people in life are members. I am completely and totally addicted to pre-race jitters, the thrill of passing someone that looks like they should be faster than me, the satisfaction of finishing a run or race that I know I have put enormous work into, and the joy of lacing up a fresh pair of flashy kicks and heading out the door.
I arrived in Eureka Springs for Outback in the Ozarks last year not knowing anyone that I would be racing with. I left Arkansas the next day knowing some truly awesome people that I have since traveled near and far to run with. I will arrive at Outback in the Ozarks this year precisely 22 years to the day since the rock climbing accident that did its best to define my entire life. Every race, every mile, every hill is a personal reason to celebrate the fact that, with much help and support from others, I changed that definition. Running has helped me lose 100 pounds, it has given me confidence in other areas of my life, it has restored my health and it provides the requisite balance that evens out my days.
Life is filled with things we have to do. It’s easy to get caught in the all- consuming wormhole of get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, repeat. I’m guilty of letting this vicious cycle take over my mentality all the time. In a world filled with things I have to do, running and racing are things I get to do. It is a privilege and a passport that allows me to participate in my life on my terms.
All of the above, plus I’m SUPER-COMPETITIVE!