We passed three runners while hiking Bear Creek Trail the other day. Two were hard bodied gals in training for the Hardrock 100, a grueling 100 mile foot race that weaves over 13,000 foot passes and through rugged mountains around Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride. The Hardrock goes all day, all night, and through all kinds of weather—a cumulative 34,000 feet of ups and downs at an average elevation of over 11,000 feet.
Then we met other runner, a guy about my age, running alone. Even on a good day, Bear Creek is not a trail for acrophobes or the timid of heart. But this time of year snow and ice runs block the trail in places. Oddly, we always find footsteps across these dangerously sloped hazards… snow chutes, aimed into the abyss. It takes more than precipitous drop-offs, washouts, and obstacles that could pitch one headlong into the canyon to stem the march of cabin fevered souls in need of sun and fresh air. Winter hazards aside, it is a pleasant and dramatic hike with several narrow segments literally blasted out of the cliff face.
Chatting, we learned that Runner Guy was also a veteran of the Hardrock… said he had done this trail well over 500 times, some for training, most for the drama, fun, and spirituality of it. 100 mile races are behind him now, much like my mountain racing days. Although I never made the quantum leap from running Mountain Marathons to Hundred Milers, I can attest to the addictive nature of long distance trail running and sympathize with the toll it takes on knees and body.
What I couldn't sympathize with is the massive heart attack he had a little over a year ago. I've yet to have one of those to call my own, thankfully, but often wonder if and when. Take yesterday, while grinding the old 29'er mountain bike up Camp Bird Road, a self flagellating incline guaranteed to purge demons… a punishing relentless pedal from springtime in Lovely Ouray, to Old Man Winter in the mountains above historic Camp Bird Mine.
The Universe must laugh at the irony of giving Superman a heart attack. It was a close call for Runner Guy, serious, but there he was, still running, alone in the mountain wilds, under threatening skies clad only in t-shirt and shorts… your basic spitting in the face of the Big "U," just for the joy and fun of it. Truth be known, "spitting" is about the only thing we can do that returns a sense of control over this crapshoot called "Life."
I can't explain the irony, why some need to risk death in order to feel alive. What drives people to push limits… climb Everest, run a Hardrock, sail solo around the world in a miniature plastic boat? Again, I believe it has something to do with the need to feel self directed, to exact from the Universe a measure of control over our fate—even though we sometimes kill ourselves proving it. A lead climber clinging by toe and fingernails to Yosemite's vertiginous Half Dome wall is the definition of "being in control."
Unfortunately, we have yet to out-evolve our genetic predisposition to be in charge, slay dragons and kill the menacing sabertooth that lurks in the asphalt jungle. Our prehistoric ancestors didn't have the luxury to sit back, relax, and make love all day. We are still paying a high price for that one little bite out of the "apple."
In today's world we need challenge outside of work. We need the giddy anticipation, the uptick in good adrenaline, that feeling of being alive, on the verge or in the process of taking on a supreme physical challenge. A life without outdoor motivation is kinda like a zebra without its stripes, just another ordinary horse. As humans, we do like to feel "special."
Being preseason, the bike ride up Camp Bird Road was a nice lonely solo—just me and my sordid, selfish outdoor ambition, looking for a chemical solution to demons and multiple choice questions where "None of the above" is the best answer. It had been a couple of years since my last Camp Bird Road "exorcism." I remembered the initial mile as being a make-or-break ball-crusher… the kind of bottom gear grunt that makes a masochist question his choice of whips (spikes? really?). The imp whispers into my ear, "Who would know if you turned around and fled this one dragon?" Only the last person on earth I could face knowing, thats who; the ugly Geezer Guy in the mirror.
Perhaps the best way to explain the PTSD of an aging athlete/malcontent wanderer is to cut right to the chase. It's the drug. I do it for the high—the afterglow—a sensation not unlike one gets from repenting at the Sunday service "alter call." Sweet redemption; peace in the valley; courtesy of a magical brew made from two parts endorphins and one part penance, a high of the innermost psycho-chemicalically induced state of contentment imaginable, all from having reached beyond one's grasp, faced down the demon de jour, and escape with their life (heart) intact. The coupe de grace? A Cracker Jack Prize grin that borders on smirk, and lasts 24 to 48 hours… or about one Hardrock day.
I am reminded this week, sadly, of the tenuous thread from which life hangs. Sometimes it breaks and causes another kind of heart attack… one that feels like it's been shattered by a hollow point. It leaves survivors in that deep valley known as the "shadow of death." I know this because I've been there.
There are no words. There are no answers. And the cruel irony is, there is no cure for that kind of heartache. We eventually find ways to cope and carry on. For some, it's a mountain trail, others, a desert wash. A few choose to run, and just keep going and going. I can attest that there is distraction in running. Those who can't run might seek comfort from the Bible, with its promise of reunion.
Come away, O human child: To the waters and the wild with a fairy, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
William Butler Yeats
Sometimes when a team member is struck down by "Life," they are better served by ears and shoulders than mouths.
When I can no longer slay the dragon he will dine on my flesh. In a final act of defiance, I will stick in his throat and take him with me.