From Denver, with Love

MDRA 15K August 5 2018 (57:31) and Pike’s Peak Marathon August 19 2018 (5:38:31)

My summer hiatus apparently wasn’t limited to just school. It’s been a while. I’ve missed this. I could pull many excuses for not updating: It’s summer, I was in Oklahoma for 4 weeks for army training, I was travelling last week, blah blah blah. In any case – that’s all bullshit and I regret not maintaining this. There is a dose-dependent output of positivity and peace that comes with writing and meditating, and I haven’t been more aware of that since falling off the practice of both exercises for the last couple of months. My mind is more erratic, my motivations less clear, and increasingly I feel out of touch with myself and my friends. But like most things in life, I seem to preternaturally learn the same damn lessons, repeatedly, the hard way. Perhaps some of you are familiar with the feeling – if so, you’re not alone. Take comfort (or more likely, despair) that you’ve got my company in your perpetual self un-doing. As I’ve said in the past, misery loves company. And I got you covered!

End melodrama. Let’s talk races!

I have quite the slew of races planned (and ran) in the next 2 months. July would have been an ideal training month for an ultramarathon, 2 marathons, and a handful of shorter races between then and October. Unfortunately, uncle Sam fit for me to spend 4 long, horribly warm and humid weeks in the middle of what can only be described as a state-sized hair-dryer. For those of you not aware, I am taking a scholarship from the Army for medical school. All expenses paid, plus a stipend, healthcare, and a nice chunk of extra change 6 weeks every year, with food and housing provided wherever it is I do my training. It’s quite the deal – and if you haven’t seen enough of my race photos, let me tell you that I fucking love America. Taking care of vets and their families is enough of a sell for me….just not in the Midwest. If you’ve never been to Oklahoma, keep it that way. It’s a hot, moist, cauldron of nothingness. On the bright-side, if I could manage even 30 miles a week in 110 degree heat with 80% + humidity, I would find solace in the cool, breezy, dry Minnesota August.

At least I thought.

The very next day after getting back to Minnesota, I saw to it to race and run with my friends as a celebration of my return to lakes, friends, normal temperatures, and delicious damn food. It just so happened I could get my fix of (almost) all the above running a 15K with my Mill City Running race team. Now, a 15k is one of those nasty distances that combines the intensity and lung-burning of a short race like a 5k or an 8k with the added benefit of having to sustain that pace for what feels like forever, not unlike a marathon. Couple that with gnats, heat, and humidity, and you’ve got yourself a damn fun race! And, honestly, given the circumstances, it really was. I was back home, I was with friends, I had great competition, and as I’ve come to learn very well in my life, all shitty things come to pass. And if nothing else, there is always, always¸ food at the finish line.

Fast forward another week and a half. It’s a (actually) beautiful day. It’s still dark, there’s a light breeze, it’s dry, and today’s high?  It won’t even break 80. But right now, it’s hovering about 50 degrees. Disregarding the fact that’s 3am, I’m making an entire pot of drip coffee to be shared between two people. As I pour the bigger half of the full carafe of liquid nirvana into a thermos, I’m unprepared for what nature has in store. One of my best friends and I are headed to a little low-lying place called Mt. Bierstadt, and wer’re determined to catch the sunrise from its peak. I am wholly unprepared for a mountain race in just 4 days, but today would be as good a day as any to try and play catch up. The mountain face outlines the background of our hour car-ride southwest from Denver. Each passing minute uncovers that much more of the landscape that would captivate me for the next week. I’m cautiously eager to get to our parking spot, right about 10 and a ½ thousand feet above sea level. Mt Bierstadt sits at just above 14 thousand ft – a popular ‘14er’ that many out-of-towners ascend during their stay. What better way to celebrate a new state than to run up one (two) of its peaks.

It’s an hourly occurrence where I ask myself why I live in the midwest and not near mountains. From Switzerland, to Italy, California, and now Colorado, each time is like the first. Except even better – I get to amass a larger and larger list of places to retire. Actually, to live and retire. Just 3 more years in Minnesota…

I’m ridiculously fortunate in how my body tolerates exercise and climate. Less than 24 hours in Colorado and I have hiked/ran 3.5 miles to the highest elevation I’ve ever been on Earth without so much as a headache. I (try to) never take for granted just how lucky I am. Hence Eric and I’s early-ass hike up here.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Nothing more touristy than getting a picture of yourself at the elevation marker of a peak. It’s cliché. It’s sort-of petty, and absolutely unoriginal. Normally I’m not one to have my picture taken in front of landscapes/objects/buildings/etc. I much prefer the view of the point of interest than to have my awkward self juxtaposed with whatever awe-inspiring entity sits in the background. But it seemed only fitting at the time. And damnit if I don’t feel at least a little adventurous getting to the top of a 14er. I’m the laziest person I know – it’s an achievement for me to do something this physically active without the motivation of food/medal/t-shirt/photos waiting at the end.

I’ll generally spare you the views from the top, and overall from much of my time in Denver and CO in general. I can’t provide you with really anything that a great google image search wouldn’t get you faster and better anyway. You’d have the added benefit of not having to read my wall o’ text just to sift to the good stuff. I will share some more pictures of me, however. Pictures from Denver, Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods, the Olympic Training Center, the air force academy, etc are far less intriguing to my narcissism than photos of me racing.

Okay, Pike’s Peak Marathon. Flash back to June. Within hours of completing grandma’s marathon, I raced home to see if there were still spots left for this awesome challenge. As luck would have it, the registration this year was slow, so in no time I had my spot secured and a flight to Denver booked for a race I had no business running. I picked one helluvan event to launch my career into trail racing. I had never ran up more than anything above a 10% grade hill my entire life, yet me and a thousand other people would be averaging about 14% for half a fucking marathon. All to race back down the exact same way we came to cap off a full marathon. It’s epic shit. It’s dope as fuck. It’s aptly described by lots more expletives. But most of all, it would be damn good fun.

Full disclosure – I’m an atheist. But if there is a god, she fucking loves watching me run marathons. I’m up to 5 now, and I haven’t had anything less than perfect weather for each one. I learn a little bit more about myself every time, and the finish of each one is a step closer to a truer, more authentic version of myself. Calm, cool 48 degrees here. I loved every second of it.

And fun it was. I couldn’t predict how I was gonna tolerate the climb, how I would handle the altitude, how I would feel on the downhill. I had no real predictions on how long it would take. I really didn’t even plan on racing. I was here for the challenge, to meet people in the starting corral and on the trail, take pictures, videos, stop at the top, and above all eat the food at the aid stations. And I did every one of those things. I even managed to finally get my feet underneath me during the descent (not before tripping constantly and falling three times, narrowly missing splitting my head open) and race. I was a kid in a candy store. Well, a really high up candy store with some seriously fast trail hikers, but definitely a happy kid nonetheless. I was stripped of all notion of pace and speed. I had no idea what would be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ time. I was living as close to the essence of being a blissfully unaware and unassuming human on this planet as possible – to use my two legs (some hands too, shit gets real rocky above the tree line) to move, my mouth to share conversations with amazing people, and my heart to love every second of the adventure.

If I had one regret about this race, it was not buying trail shoes. From the top of the mountain to not even back to the tree-line I fell 3 different times and was still really not moving that fast. I finally figured that if I was gonna make it through the finish on my own two feet, I was gonna have to accept that the much better trail runners were gonna pass me. I was okay with that. What I lacked in preparedness and rock expertise, I could somewhat make up for on the ‘flats’ (not really a thing on this course but I suppose anything less that 10% grade could be a ‘flat’).

The stories of people I’d heard from the expo the day before, and the day of the race, were nothing short of inspiring. Wounded vets, long-time ultrarunners, world-record holders, you name it. Just look at the winner from that day – the dude biked (yes like the one with pedals and shit) 250 miles in the 4 days leading up to the race to raise money to combat climate change. And then set the course record for fastest descent. And won. I find its stories like these that illicit two reactions from people. Self-deprecation, or inspiration. It’s taken quite a bit of training, but more often than not I now find myself in the latter category. It’s a practice in recognizing the voice we all have in our head that says ‘I could never do that,’ ‘Those people are special,’ and ‘I wish I could be like them.’ We have a tendency to immediately forget all the things we’re capable of and focus on comparing ourselves to others, at the expense of positive self-esteem and self-worth. I try (keyword: try) to change the paradigm – ‘If someone is capable of doing that, what can I do?’ You recognize, and appreciate, the achievements of others. You give them credit, and get inspired by what they are capable of. And that positivity can translate into making yourself better. I try to put that into practice – you would have asked me 6 years ago that I could run 50 miles, or up a mountain, I would have said no fucking way. But I listened to people that have, and have done even more. I awe in their achievements and am inspired to push my own limits a little farther. But more important than all of that – I kept some really good friends.

They don’t call them ‘speed hands’ for nothing. I’m pretty sure I clocked that last mile in under 6 minutes. How can you not run fast when you basically get to fall down a mountain for 13 miles? And everyone knows you shave off AT LEAST 10 seconds per mile if you can keep your tongue out.

I read a book recently. The Blue Zones. It talks about the core tenets of longevity, based on the populations of people that have the highest per capita centenarians. Lots of old people who are healthy and active af. These demographers and social scientists studied everything about these people – what they ate, how much they exercised, how close their families were, did they go to church, etc. One of the best predictors of longevity? Your social network. The more isolated you were in retirement, the higher your rate of diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s, etc, even when factoring in for other lifestyle habits. The stronger your bonds with other people, the longer and healthier your life will be. I just happen to be fortunate enough to have maintained a few of those close friendships since I was in grade school. Like many lessons I’ve learned since ‘adulting,’ its those friendships that keep you in check, and I know too well the consequences of social isolation. So in closing, this is a shoutout to great (best) friends. I wouldn’t have had an experience even remotely as fun and exciting without my best friend Eric (nor would I have gotten the badass pics of me at the finish, thank you iphones). Between the reminiscing, the restaurants, the conversations with mutual friends, hell even just a hot bed and shower for a week, there are almost no experiences in life that aren’t made complete with the company of the people that you love. Whether you meet them the day before the race, or in college, or met them before you started middle school, it’s people, even more than mountains, that fill this bumbling, newly-minted trail-runner with happiness. Now, if only I could get my quads back from that descent…

Eric and I hit up the OTC on our way down to Manitou Springs for the race. No, they aren’t real medals, but apparently that torch was the same one they used in Atlanta in the ’96 games. I could never have predicted I’d be the one clean shaven in a picture with Eric Johnson, but that’s life.

2 Replies to “From Denver, with Love”

  1. I love, love, love this!! So proud of you, and can’t imagine how much fun that you had doing this. You inspire me all the time, thank you for that.

    P.S. – All of your photo captions are my absolutely favorite. *insert crying from laughter emoji here*

  2. “I could never have predicted I’d be the one clean shaven in a picture with Eric Johnson, but that’s life.” HA yes.

    I love that you’re doing this, it’s like having a little book of Ryan thoughts. #duffthoughts #duff

    Also – I appreciate the title.

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