Running during the winter presents some uncomfortable challenges. The main challenge has to do with temperature: not only the frigid outside air but your internal temperature, too. That’s an important distinction that shouldn’t be overlooked.
As you read this in the heat of July, perhaps you’ve all but forgotten those early January mornings when you roll out of a warm, inviting bed to face a cold, cruel reality: it’s freezing outside and you’d really rather not be freezing. But since you’re a runner and runners tend to want to run, you’re faced with the paradox of both wanting to do something (run) and not wanting to do something (run in the cold).
Sipping your morning coffee and contemplating your existence on those winter mornings (Does a meaningful life really need to include the unnecessary discomfort that you’re about to endure?), you’re faced with the important question of what to wear or, more specifically, how many layers of clothing you should wear. And it’s all too easy to get it wrong. There’s a cold-weather running adage that’s meant to help here. It says, “Dress like you’ll want to be dressed two miles into the run,” or something like that. The idea is that you shouldn’t over dress because then, aside from the icy air stinging your lungs with each breath, it’ll feel like mid-July instead of the dead of winter. But then if you dress for several miles into the run, those first few miles are painfully cold: your legs are stiff and your extremities start to go numb and icicles start to form where you didn’t think they could. I always over dress.
When it’s cold out, if you’re like me, you try to avoid being outside before the run actually starts. The only thing worse than running in arctic conditions is not running in arctic conditions. That’s why, while the morning coffee is brewing, you must put on the warmest coat you own, start your GPS watch, dash into the front yard and place the watch in an area with good clearance overhead. Even if you have the fastest-finding satellite watch, it’ll take at least ten seconds to connect the GPS. Those are precious seconds best spent indoors. (Whenever someone poses the question, “Would you rather freeze to death or burn to death?”, I think about standing outside before a winter run, waiting for my GPS watch to locate satellites, and the answer becomes very clear.)
As your winter adventure begins, and your mind is fixated on the deep, penetrating coldness, you’re tasked with the added challenge of staying upright. Since it’s winter, the trails are probably filled with snow or frozen runoff from melted snow, and you’re forced to navigate slick city streets and sidewalks. (This is another uncomfortable winter running challenge for those that prefer trails: road running.) There’s probably ice on sections of the road, and there’s probably ice that you don’t see, and even if there isn’t ice, you’re probably looking for it just in case. Now your mind is working overtime in an effort to simultaneously placate the cries of your freezing limbs and nimbly navigate the ground in front of you. By the time you get two miles into the run, it feels like you’ve run ten. Winter running is exhausting.
Then there is Phoenix, Arizona in the winter. It’s a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak, wintry nightmare. The temperature hovers around seventy degrees Fahrenheit and the sun shines pleasantly. The trails aren’t snow-packed and a soft, crisp breeze recycles the still air at regular intervals. It’s a trail runner’s paradise and it’s often what I dream about before I wake up on a snowy January morning in Flagstaff.
There are a lot of trail races, and road races, and all manner of races in the Phoenix area during the winter. There’s a trail race there in January called the Coldwater Rumble. There’s also a road race called Rock N’ Roll Arizona. Last year, those two races were on back-to-back days.
It was the middle of January and I was about a month away from racing the Black Canyon 100k, yet another race during the winter in Arizona. I had been sick in early January and training had stagnated a bit and I was so sick of running in cold weather that I was willing to do whatever I could to leave Flagstaff. But you can’t leave town just because you’re sick of the cold.
“Hey boss, I’m going to be out of work for a few days because I hate the cold.”
That reflects poorly on a person. On the other hand, if you have to leave town for a race or, better yet, two races on back-to-back days, your boss views you more as a hero than as the soft, cold-weather-avoiding runner that you are. I care very much what my boss thinks of me, so I signed up for the Coldwater Rumble 52k on Saturday and the Rock N’ Roll Arizona half marathon on Sunday.
Racing is uncomfortable. Racing ultramarathons isn’t as acutely uncomfortable as, say, a 5k, but it’s less acutely uncomfortable for a much longer time, especially if you’d like to cover the distance as fast as you can. Racing on back-to-back days provides a further level of discomfort that I can’t properly articulate but I know what it feels like because I’ve done it, and I suppose if you haven’t then you’ll have to try it for yourself or take my word for it.
Arriving in Phoenix that Friday, I was so happy to be in warm weather that I wanted to be outside at all costs. It turns out the costs were a bit high because we slept in the back of our truck, with the tailgate down, near the race staging area in Estrella Mountain Regional Park. The Coldwater Rumble offers a variety of distances and start times, including the 100-mile distance with a 7 AM start time. I learned very early that morning that these race staging areas take some time to set up. Like several hours worth of time. Setting up a start/finish area in the dark requires lights. People working at those hours enjoy music. I know this because by 4 AM there were flood lights bright enough to illuminate a football field and there was music playing loud enough for the far-away mountain peaks to hear. But I couldn’t complain. It was January and I was sleeping--rather, in the angle of repose but awake now--in the cool desert air and I was about to run 30-something miles of trails.
I managed to run quite fast that morning and tried my best not to think about the half marathon the next day. I’ve always found that the key to running well is to forget: you omit the miles ahead and ignore the miles you’ve run and, if you’re racing on back-to-back days, you definitely neglect the fact that you have to run hard again the next day.
But the next day came, as days tend to do, and I had to forget all over again: about the 30-plus miles from the day before and the painfully fast miles in front of me. It was early in the morning again, still dark, and I had to prepare to be uncomfortable again.
It can be especially difficult to do painful and stupid things when you’re alone but it’s made a lot easier when you have someone else who’s willing to do painful and stupid things with you. On this Sunday morning in January, I had Justin Houck, among others, to thank for getting me out of bed. Justin is a much better runner than me and I’ve found that one way to find new levels of discomfort is to run with people faster than you.
Justin did a formidable pacing job that morning as he ran by my side for the first five miles or so. It wasn’t long after the course went near his house and he left me to go home that I slowed considerably. But I managed to keep a decent pace and completed my weekend of racing with a new half marathon best. Thanks, Justin.
I’m amused as I reflect back on that weekend in January last year. It’s funny because I realize now that I wasn’t trying to avoid being uncomfortable when I convinced myself that I had to get out of Flagstaff’s freezing temperatures to spend a long, warm weekend in the valley. Really, I just chose to replace one form of discomfort (running in the cold) with another (racing twice in a weekend). I guess I like being uncomfortable.
I’ll most likely run again in the cold, dark hours of an early winter morning and I’ll most likely endure the discomfort of back-to-back races once more. And I’ll likely forget about the discomfort just as soon as it’s over so that my mind will allow me to do it again. I think I seek out uncomfortable situations because that’s when I learn the most about myself. That’s true in running but it’s perhaps just as true in other facets of life. I think it’s important to take on challenges that will inevitably drag you out of bed in the morning, that will make you question what you believe, that will force you to treat people more kindly, and expand your willingness to accept different people and different situations and different views.
Training through the cold of winter or racing back-to-back days might not by themselves make your life more meaningful. But it’s a start and I think it’s worth trying again and again.
Welcome to the fourth installment of The Story Goes, a monthly column of stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the column here.
I can’t recall the very first time that I met Rickey Gates. I’ve hung out with Rickey only a handful of times, so I can remember each time, but I don’t know which of the times came first. I think that’s because when you meet Rickey, it feels like you’ve known him for a long time. It might feel that way because he looks you in the eye when he talks to you. Or maybe it’s because he makes you feel serenely at ease, like you’re talking to someone who not only already knows you, but fully understands you. It could be because he asks a lot of questions about you, and he listens to your answers and you can tell that he’s listening and that he cares, and when you ask questions of him, his answers are so sagacious, and uttered so calmly, that it feels like he’s been pondering your questions for decades and he’s finally arrived at the most appropriate answers just now.
In 2017, Rickey spent five months covering some 3,700 miles from South Carolina to California. I say covering because sometimes he was walking and other times he was running and he even paddled hundreds of miles of river along the way. He documented his journey with photographs and prose, and his recently released book, Cross Country, provides readers with a glimpse of what he saw: roadkill and empty vodka bottles; water towers and bridges; mountains and desert; people and their different cultures. The book also offers us an insight into Rickey Gates.
Rickey says that his journey was motivated by a desire to explore, and better understand, unseen America. But not halfway through the book, he recounts a day when he awoke at his campsite along the Appalachian Trail. He got up and sat around a still-burning fire with the camp’s unofficial warden. The man was drinking, so Rickey joined him and drank from eight in the morning until noon, at which point he realized that he better get moving if, after all, he was going to make it across the country. “I stumbled down the trail looking at myself,” he muses.
There is an Ancient Greek aphorism that translates as “Know Thyself.” It was referenced by Socrates and Plato and others in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. In one variation, the aphorism is meant to mean that you cannot fully understand others until you truly have an understanding of yourself. Perhaps paradoxically, it’s often by looking outward that we can better understand what’s inward. We can better know ourselves through the lense of other people. In Cross Country, Rickey seems to do just that: he learns about himself by investigating the people, and places, around him. By the end of the book, he seems to see himself more truly after he’s investigated his surroundings genuinely. One of his reflections from the later pages of the book seems especially astute on this point: “I tell Liz about how the birds would tell me where to seek shade in the desert. I didn’t even know they were showing me. Neither did they.”
This is the sort of poetic insight that Rickey sprinkles into the pages of Cross Country. Although most of the 256 pages are dedicated to other people--through portraits, quotations, quick anecdotes and short stories--we learn most about Rickey. He talks with store clerks and convicts, cowboys and tourists, bikers and business owners, immigrants and nationalists. What we learn through their stories is that Rickey asks earnestly, listens sympathetically and learns quickly. We learn that Rickey is less concerned with his personal pursuits than he is with the pursuits of others. That’s evident in the book because he spends most of his time narrating his conversations with other people and very little time talking about his own running. But these individual interactions on the road were only able to happen against the backdrop of his journey, a run across America. Throughout the book, that seems to unify him with the people he meets, no matter their background. I imagine, too, that his thoughtful questions and insightful answers put everyone he talked to at ease. I imagine that everyone he met felt like they had known him for a very long time.
One of the times that my path crossed with Rickey was in Silverton, Colorado. I’m not sure when it was, but I think it was in the summer of 2018. This was after Rickey had run across America but before he had run every single street in San Francisco. It was a warm morning and a cool mountain breeze whisked through the coffee shop. I sat down with Rickey over a cup of coffee. He wore a brimmed straw hat and listened closely as I spoke until a bird rode the breeze straight through the coffee shop’s open door. Rickey watched as the bird rose to the ceiling and coasted overhead. It landed in a box of potato chip bags on top of the cabinets in the back of the shop. The big open box also had a small square cutout at the bottom that the baristas could just barely reach into while still standing to grab a bag of chips. I saw the bird as it flew into the box and then I saw Rickey quietly get up and walk behind the counter.
The coffee shop was bustling and the baristas were busy, so I’m not sure that they saw the bird land above the cabinets. And I don’t think any of them heard Rickey politely ask if he could use the small step ladder. Rickey climbed the ladder, removed his hat, placed it over the top of the open box with his right hand, and blocked the small square opening with his left hand. He moved the hat toward his left hand until it met the sidewall of the box. He lifted the hat upward and put his left hand at the top of the open box until his two hands met, his straw hat and the small bird between them. He climbed down the ladder, walked outside and released the bird. He sat back down across from me and said something like, “Sorry about that. Where were we?”
Rickey is a noticeably reflective person and that personality trait comes through especially clearly in Cross Country. His assessment of himself--who he was and who he might be and who he’s become and is now--tends to happen at points in the book when nothing is really happening. He’ll talk about the day’s weather, or how flat the terrain is, or how far he has to go, or something else rather mundane. Then in an instant his reflections turn rather profound.
“We are never the same person from one moment to the next,” he writes, echoing a thought from Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who’s quoted as saying that “no man steps in the same river twice.”
“There is an overlooked monotony present in most great adventures...I had neglected to realize the change that occurs as a result of that monotony,” he continues, seeming to undercut the unrealistic world of Instagram photos and social media that allows people to depict their lives as constantly adventurous and interesting.
“Oftentimes, we don’t have the capacity to recognize our own personal growth or decomposition--it’s a realization that’s reserved for reunions, weddings, and funerals,” he concludes, tapping into the difficult reality that we’re limited in our own assessments, and recognizing that many small, unnoticeable changes add up to produce large, noticeable changes over time.
Rickey’s musings are often deep and serious, but he also possesses a keen sense of humor. He has the ability to go from one (funny) to the other (serious) on a given topic within a matter of pages. One example is when he jokes about a very long, tough day: “Having been on the move for nearly four months, I was having one of those days (they seemed to be coming more often) where I was feeling particularly feral--a sentiment often accompanied by a lost sense of self, intense chocolate milk cravings, and a roadside analysis of Nietzsche.” Later in the book, as he considers the implications of his run across the country, he returns to the topic of chocolate milk in a rather serious way: “I don’t miss chocolate milk; what I miss is craving chocolate milk. I miss wanting it more than anything in the world.”
I didn’t run across the country with Rickey Gates. Not even for one mile. In fact, I’ve never run a single step with Rickey. Most people that read Cross Country won’t have run with him either, and probably won’t even have met him. But if you read the book, you’ll feel like you started on the beach in South Carolina with him, your feet sinking into the sand. You’ll hear an eighteen-wheel truck whizzing by you on the highway. You’ll feel the suffocating heat of Nevada in the summer. You’ll feel a sense of drained elation when he reaches San Francisco. And if you read the book, you’ll feel like you know Rickey. You’ll laugh when he’s funny, you’ll squint your eyes to focus when he’s profound, and you might tear up when he’s reflective.
If you ever get the chance to meet Rickey Gates, you’ll think he’s an old friend. Either because you’ll have read his book, or because he’ll look you in the eyes when he talks to you and he’ll ask genuine questions and he’ll take the time to save a bird in distress and then he’ll apologize to you for the inconvenience.
But whether you ever read Cross Country or meet Rickey, you can learn from his journey that life is best lived, and the moments you experience are unique and should be lived fully. Or, in the words of Rickey Gates, “The sun disappearing for two minutes is not something that you can fabricate or reproduce. You have either experienced something or you haven’t. Either way, the moment is everything. And when it is gone, all you are left with are recollections and interpretations of that moment.”
Welcome to the third installment of The Story Goes, a monthly column of stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the column here.
Author’s Note: Due to the current global health pandemic, most all of us have been asked to stay at home and avoid unnecessary human interaction. During these times of solitude, I imagine that most of us miss running with friends. I thought I would tell a story that brings you humanity and social contact by proxy. So please enjoy this story about a group of friends running across the Grand Canyon--a place that is presently closed to the public due to the coronavirus--and be safe.
Desert vegetation clings to canyon walls of rusted red, coffee-colored beige, and ochre, which tumble thousands of feet to a tumultuous Colorado River in Northern Arizona. Vast, lingering crevasses dissect these towering walls, hiding oases of shade and springs in an otherwise arid expanse. A plethora of trails navigate the myriad layers of colored rock from the rim to the river and across the Tonto plateau, and creeks flow down side canyons. Within this massive ditch, there are nearly four-hundred bird, almost one-hundred mammal, and some one thousand, seven-hundred and fifty plant species. It’s a beautiful place brimming with life.
When you stand seven-thousand feet above sea level on the south rim in Grand Canyon National Park, you can’t see the river. From that vantage point, you wouldn’t be able to identify all of the birds, mammals or plants either. From the rim, the canyon’s only discernible feature is its vastness. It’s nearly five thousand vertical feet from the top to the bottom and, again, from the top, you can’t even see the river snaking through the canyon’s depths. There are nearly three-hundred miles of river bisecting the canyon between the river’s eastern terminus at Lee’s Ferry and its western terminus at Lake Mead.
If you want to cross the canyon from the south rim to the north rim, it takes twenty-one miles, and some ten-thousand feet of elevation change, via the South and North Kaibab Trails. If you cross the canyon and come back, taking on the infamous rim-to-rim-to-rim route, it’s forty-two miles with some twenty-thousand feet of elevation change. It makes for a long day, which is exactly what you want if you’re training for a hundred mile race.
It was June 3rd, 2019, and it was twenty-six days before the Western States 100. It was a sunny morning and Jim Walmsley, Tim Freriks, Stephen Kersh, Jared Hazen and I drove from Flagstaff to the canyon’s south rim. We parked a half-mile from the South Kaibab trailhead and we started our usual pre-canyon run rituals in a small, shaded parking lot.
Stephen had never run rim-to-rim-to-rim and if you didn’t know that, his anxiety in the parking lot gave it away. And if his anxiety in the parking lot didn’t give it away, then he gave it away on the drive to the canyon when he said, “I’ve never been so anxious my whole life.” He was asking questions about what nutrition to bring, what the North Kaibab Trail was like, if he should wear arm sleeves to keep cool, etcetera. His bottles had been filled with water hours before we arrived at the south rim and he was left to sort of just pace around as we all got ready, his level of trepidation both palpable and reasonable. He’s since learned that you should leave your bottles empty until you get to the trailhead so that you have something to distract you from thinking about what you’re about to do.
Before a run in the canyon, or really before any run at all, or, come to think of it, at any time at all, Jared reverts to an almost primal level of interaction. He talks but he never really says anything. It’s either an inside joke or a sound or a line from a show. He was also exceedingly tired, as he always is when he’s running a disturbing number of miles in training, and complained about being tired, as he also always does when he’s running a disturbing number of miles every week. I don’t know if it’s the fatigue that turns him so nonsensical or if acting that way is his way of dealing with what’s happening or about to happen, which in this case was an undeniably difficult run.
Tim’s mood seemed to elevate the closer we got to the south rim. That’s because if Tim could have it his way, he’d spend nearly every waking minute at the canyon, in the canyon, near the canyon, or, worst case scenario, simply thinking about the canyon. And it wouldn’t really matter to him if he was alone or with people. But when he knows he’s about to spend most of the daylight hours running through the canyon with friends, he’s the happiest person in the state of Arizona. So he was on this day as he lathered himself in anti-chafe salve, counted his calories as he packed them up, and smiled endlessly.
Jim really likes to take his time before a run. It seems to take him longer than anyone else to get ready. He’s often still in his warmups as the rest of us are tying our shoes. For as much as the guy seems to love running, he might find more joy in talking about running before running. I can’t recall what was on his mind on this exact morning, but I’d bet the farm that he was talking about a run he did earlier that week, or a run he was going to do next week, or the last time he ran rim-to-rim-to-rim or something. Meanwhile he wasn’t changing or filling bottles or counting calories and it likely took us an extra twenty minutes to start the run than it would have otherwise.
As for myself, I’m always scared shitless before a run in the canyon. That’s the easiest way to describe how I felt that morning, or any other day at the canyon, but I’m sure the emotions are much more complex. There’s a bit of anxiousness, nervousness, excitement and the like. There’s an energy in the air. It’s quite a lot like the feeling you get on the morning of a race.
The South Kaibab Trail descends abruptly and there’s a lot of steps and you really have to be careful with your footwork so that you don’t catch a toe and plummet hundreds of feet through the air. The trail is often rutted out from torrential rains or the half a dozen mule trains that stomp up and down the canyon every day. I had never fallen during a canyon descent until we were four miles into our forty-four mile day. Fortunately, I fell in as good of a place as you can fall in the canyon, which is any place that allows you to land on the earth in front of you and not hurtling down the canyon walls. This was just below the Tonto plateau where the coffee-colored beige turns to rusted red. It hurt and Jared first laughed but then seemed mildly concerned because I had a rather big gash in my knee. I took a minute to collect myself and then we tiptoed the rest of the way down to the river.
Tim is a nurse and so I defer all of my medical curiosities and inquiries to him. When we got down to the river and stopped to fill our bottles at a spicket, I asked him if I should be concerned. He told me to keep it clean by spraying it with water and that I should be fine. Part of me wanted him to say that it was bad and I needed to seek medical attention, and then I could have walked leisurely out of the canyon and the dozens of miles of discomfort never would have happened. But I’m glad I stuck around because just a few miles later on the North Kaibab Trail, Jim took a memorable plunge in Bright Angel Creek.
Jim, or Swimmin’ Jim as we often call him, has an interesting history with water. I want to start by saying that Jim is actually a very proficient swimmer. That’s partly because when he was at the Air Force Academy, he had to pass certain physical fitness tests that included diving to the bottom of a pool with a weight vest on and navigating an obstacle course. I saw his swimming prowess first hand, too, when Jim and Tim and I swam across the Colorado River (twice) while running the Bass Trail in 2018. Jim was definitely the best swimmer of the three of us, and Tim and I aren’t bad swimmers.
But Jim didn’t earn the moniker Swimmin’ Jim because he completed an underwater obstacle course or swam across the Colorado River. He earned the nickname after the 2016 Western States 100 when, while crossing the American River at mile seventy-eight, he let go of the rope and was swept downstream. His swimming ability actually quite helped him in that circumstance, as the ferocious white water only swept him about a hundred meters down river before he made it to shore. That particular event is especially well remembered in ultrarunning history because Jim was in the lead and well under course-record pace when he went for a swim. He would go on to take a wrong turn and finish in twentieth place.
And then there was the time that we ran rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon on June 3rd, 2019.
It can be very warm at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in early June. When it's the middle of the day and you’re running through a box canyon on the North Kaibab Trail, it’s especially warm. I don’t know what the temperature was that day but it was hot enough that we’d take a dip whenever we could. The lower half of the North Kaibab Trail crisscrosses Bright Angel Creek several times, and the trail basically parallels the creek for half a dozen miles. We had dunked ourselves in the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon and a few miles up the North Kaibab Trail, we decided to cool off in Bright Angel Creek.
There are undoubtedly many things about Jim that have made him especially well suited for ultrarunning. One of those things is that he has the ability to obsess over something in excruciating detail. If Jim wants to buy a car, he’ll spend hours every day, for months, researching different vehicles. And he’ll educate himself to the point that he can talk to you for hours about why you might buy one vehicle over another, replete with objections and rejoinders. He’ll get so wrapped up in something that it’s almost all he can think about. So much so that you might try to change the topic to talk about something besides cars and as soon as he gets the chance he’ll move the conversation back to the car debate. I think most other people would become disinterested in something, like buying a car, long before Jim. And that ability to focus very acutely, for very long periods of time, is one of the things that makes Jim really good at ultrarunning. Because when you’re trying to run as fast as you can for hours, you can’t become disinterested. You can’t let yourself focus on the pain or discomfort or whatever else. To be really, really good at running really, really fast for really, really long periods of time, you have to be intensely focused throughout. When you become that engaged in something, you don’t have the ability to turn your attention to other things. You might then miss a left turn ninety-something miles into a race. Or you might end up careening from rock to rock as the Bright Angel Creek sweeps you away.
Bright Angel Creek was flowing unusually fast that day. Typically the creek isn’t much to worry about. You could wade across from one side to the other in all of six seconds without getting your shorts wet. But as I recall, the higher elevations in Northern Arizona received a lot of snow that spring, and I think the increased volume in Bright Angel Creek was due to more snow melt than usual. Whatever the case, when Jim and I found a relatively calm pool of water swirling at the creek’s edge, we bushwhacked directly over from the trail and waded in. Stephen and Jared were further upstream and Tim hadn’t gotten in yet.
Jim was in the water first and he moved further into the main current to make room for me. When I lowered myself into the water, I was immediately struck by the force of the pool that had looked relatively calm before getting in. I didn’t lower myself any further and chose to use my hat to splash water on my upper body. The current was strong.
I don’t think Jim thought much about the current. We were running forty-four miles that day and I imagine Jim poured nearly all of his energy into that and thinking about that. He probably didn’t notice that the current was very strong or that he was further into the creek than he should have been. He lowered his body into the current and then bent over to fully dunk his upper half, head included, under water. Then, as he bent back up and emerged from the water, the current grabbed at him and his body turned further into the current ever so slightly. We made eye contact and in his eyes I saw a raw form of fear that can only be experienced. I knew that he knew that he had lost his balance and he would momentarily be swept downstream. And in an instant--swoosh. The white water pulled him away from my outstretched hand and he went bouncing--feet first, head up--down the creek. I think I yelled, “Help!” Tim sprinted along the side of the creek in pursuit.
For a second Jim was in the middle of the creek with no means of an exit. Then the current moved him to the far left and he grasped for shrubbery at the water’s edge. He missed and kept bouncing along, Tim still running and now nearly alongside him. The current then bounced him all the way to the far right side of the creek and there were reeds within reach and he managed to stop himself. I bet he was flowing along at ten miles per hour before he pulled himself to a halt.
Now Jim was on the far side of the creek and he had to get to the near side. We must have spent ten minutes trying to find an appropriate place to cross. Eventually we did and with some assistance, Jim made his way across without the creek sweeping him away again. He was visibly banged up, with two huge welts on his right elbow and hip. But, like Jim does, he played it down like it wasn’t a big deal. We’d go on to reach the north rim and return back down to the Colorado River before the final, excruciating climb up the South Kaibab Trail: roughly six-point-three miles with almost five-thousand feet of climbing. Despite his injuries from the unplanned swim, Jim would climb out of the canyon at least twenty minutes faster than all of us. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we weren’t surprised when Jim ran a new course record at Western States that year, finishing in a mind-blowing fourteen hours and nine minutes.
I don’t think Jim likes the nickname Swimmin’ Jim. But I think that maybe he should embrace it more. The reason he earned his moniker is the same reason he ran a course record at Western States: his dogged ability to focus endlessly in the face of adversity.
I think we could all benefit from an eventful, unprompted, frightening swim every now and again.
Welcome to the second installment of The Story Goes, a monthly column with stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the column here.
Sometimes the sun shines over Squaw Valley, California and sometimes it doesn’t.
When the sun is shining and it’s the morning and you drive west on Squaw Valley Road, the massive rock face that protrudes from the mountainside above the small village that once hosted the Winter Olympics shimmers in the rising sun. As you pass by the Olympic rings at the junction of Squaw Valley Road and Highway 89, you have the sense that this is a place of some importance. If you’re an ultrarunner, then you’re right because this is where the oldest 100-mile footrace begins. And if you’re a lucky ultrarunner, then you’re here to run that race on the last Saturday in June.
When the Western States 100 starts at the base of the Squaw Valley Ski Area at five o’clock sharp each year, the sun isn’t shining. You don’t see a glistening rock face or the Olympic rings. But those things are still there and somehow you can feel that they’re there. I don’t know if you first need to experience race morning at Western States in order to feel the magic of the looming mountains and the Olympic rings, or if those five rings and the towering peaks are what make the start of the race so magical, or if everything--the place and the history and the race--together makes those early, dark hours so seemingly bright. Whatever the case, the result is magnifying and it creates a feeling within you that resembles some combination of anxiousness and excitement and fear and hope, and there exists a heightened level of awareness and adrenaline that only a start line in the dark at the base of a mountain on the last Saturday in June can bring. I first experienced this on June 29th, 2018, when I ran the race for the first time.
As soon as you immerse yourself in the ultrarunning community, and most likely before, you’ll learn about the Western States 100. Before you actually experience the race, you’ll know that it starts in Squaw Valley and finishes in Auburn, California. Someone will tell you about the high country and the years the course was rerouted because of significant snowfall preceding the race. You’ll learn about the grueling canyons sections, or the pivotal section of race known as Cal Street, or the famous No Hands Bridge, or the river crossing and how some years you ford the river by boat and others you swim across. You’ll know the precise locations of Robinson Flat, Dusty Corners, Devils Thumb, Foresthill and Green Gate. You’ll know that Robie Point is about a mile from the finish. You’ll have heard about the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile horse race on the Western States trail that began in 1955. You’ll know the name Gordy Ainsleigh and about the legend of his lame horse, and how Gordy covered 100 miles that day in 1974 on foot in less than twenty-four hours. If you get curious and you do a little digging, or if you meet someone with grey hair and tanned, wrinkled skin and deep, knowing eyes, you’ll know when the race was cancelled due to fires, and the names Ann Trason and Scott Jurek will create a sense of admiration and inspiration within you.
By the time you actually toe the start line of the Western States 100, you’ll have countless ideas about the race and what it entails and you’ll likely find the history so fascinating and gripping that you’ll forget for a moment that you yourself are about to run 100 miles. It won’t be until after the race when you realize that your previous conceptions of the race are just that, previous, but the hand of time is still moving and now you’ll be part of that history and you’ll have your own stories to tell.
The year 2018 was an exciting one for me and my friends. A group of relative youngsters called the Coconino Cowboys had been formed a few years before and the five of us, all from Flagstaff, Arizona, got the idea that we should run the race together. Since we were immersed in the ultrarunning community and we knew a few people with grey hair and tanned, wrinkled skin and deep, knowing eyes and we’re all a little curious, we knew a lot about the race, including the fact that it’s not the easiest race to gain entry to. You have to get in through a lottery with lots of applicants and none of us had been chosen. But you can gain automatic entry into the race by receiving a so-called “Golden Ticket”. To do that, you have to be one of the first two finishers in a handful of other races. If five people in a group say they all want to race into Western States some year, it’s not very probable that all five will succeed. But, after a lot of hard work and determination and probably a bit of luck and definitely a little drama, we all made it. Jim Walmsley, Cody Reed, Tim Freriks, Jared Hazen and I all successfully gained entry into the 2018 Western States 100. The details of how that unfolded is a story for another time.
Tim Freriks is one of the best training partners I’ve ever had the pleasure to run with. It’s probably because we have a similar worldview and enough cynicism to question what we’re doing but not so much that it keeps us from doing it, especially when it comes to training. The result is that we end up doing some retrospectively foolish runs together that you really need to do if you want to get really good at suffering for a long time but which you probably wouldn’t do if you were cynical enough and by yourself. At the moment I can’t even recall how many times I’ve been in the middle of thirty-plus mile training runs with Tim, somewhere in the unforgiving terrain of Arizona, completely worked and rather despondent and questioning why the hell we’re doing what we’re doing. These runs have taken us into the depths of the Grand Canyon, the heat of the Black Canyon, the aimless trails of the White Mountains, the red rock of Sedona and, most memorably, the Western States trail. I could tell enough stories from those many days to fill a book.
If you’re going to embark on a 100-mile journey through the California foothills--your first attempt at such a distance--having a friend like Tim by your side reassures and calms you, which is sort of odd because it ought to do the opposite given what we tend to do when we’re together, i.e. suffer immensely for long periods of time. So, if I had had time to think about it when the gun went off at five in the morning on June 29th, 2018, I would have known that I would have a story to tell about the day ahead. I wouldn’t have known that it would be about me and Tim and a bear.
In 100-mile races you often have a support crew. These people have to love you a lot because they spend their entire day driving hundreds of miles, mostly on winding, single-lane roads, occasionally through small towns but mostly in the middle of nowhere. They’re up all day and they sacrifice a lot and if you ever get a group of people to help you at a 100-mile race, you should thank them endlessly. On the Western States course, you don’t have an opportunity to see your crew until about mile twenty-four at Duncan Canyon. Next you see them around mile thirty-one at Robinson Flat and again at Dusty Corners around mile thirty-eight. (Although, to see your crew in all three places, you actually need two crews--the three points are too distant by car for one crew to get to all of them.) As the crow flies, the start line in Squaw Valley isn’t all that far from Dusty Corners but the Western States guidebook suggests three hours of drive time to get there. That’s because the first half of the Western States trail navigates really challenging and remote terrain. The point is that when you’re running the race, you’re basically off the grid and a very far cry from civilization. I guess that’s why bears live there.
When I came into Robinson Flat in 2018, I was in eighth or ninth place. The next seven-ish miles of the course take an old dirt road and then some single-track trail and then double-track trail before you arrive at Dusty Corners. It’s a rather fast section, too, because it’s not technical and it’s mostly downhill. Tim was ahead of me but I managed to catch him on this downhill section and as we passed through a small aid station called Miller’s Defeat, we pulled away from Cody Reed and Mario Mendoza. Then we were running through the pines and it felt like so many of those long training runs except that fortunately neither of us felt as bad as we often have running together. But despite not feeling that bad, you have to remember that we were now thirty-five miles into the race and it was starting to get warm. You really don’t respond to stimuli in a normal way under those circumstances. What I mean, by way of example, is that if I was on an easy hour-and-a-half training run in the mountains of Flagstaff, I’d probably notice if a squirrel ran up a tree next to the trail. At this point in the Western States 100, I probably wouldn’t have. I probably would notice a bear running toward me but I might not realize that a bear was actually running towards me, which it was and I did notice but I didn’t really realize it immediately. What I realized is that it had been very quiet and now there was a lot of noise.
Tim was maybe fifty meters ahead of me at this moment, far enough that I sort of had to yell to get his attention. I was suddenly stopped although I don’t remember stopping. And that’s when I realized that a bear, a full-grown adult bear, was dashing through the trees and covering the ground between us at a remarkably fast pace. That’s the first thing I really realized: something is moving very fast toward me, isn’t that neat. I don’t know how much time had passed, probably only a second or two, but then it finally did fully occur to me that a BEAR was running toward me. Galloping. Lunging. Springing. Fast. I looked down the trail and Tim was still running.
Then Tim stopped and looked at me and then seemed to hear the noise and his mind was probably taking a few seconds to go through what my mind had just processed. I started to run toward him.
And then I looked to my right and the bear had taken a ninety-degree turn, now running parallel with me. Next to me. Tim started running, too. Now Tim and the bear and I were running through the middle of the woods--we on the trail, the bear fifty meters to our right in the woods--at mile thirty-seven of the 2018 Western States 100 and I’ve thought about it almost every day since then. I would later look at my mile splits and find that my fastest mile of the day, mile thirty-eight, was covered in six minutes and eighteen seconds. After what felt like a long time but I’m sure it wasn’t a long time, this large animal--one that could catch us in no time and put an end to both of our races very quickly--fortunately turned right again and disappeared through the woods and down a hillside.
That wasn’t the only time someone saw a bear during the race that day and surely is one of hundreds of times that someone has seen a bear during the Western States 100. In winning the race for the first time in course-record time, Jim saw a bear and her cub a few miles from the finish. In my deteriorating state much later that day, after blowing up horribly and walking for hours, I thought I saw another bear before Auburn Lake Trails at mile eighty-three but that supposed sighting should be contested because it was dark and I only saw eyes in my headlamp and my ability to correctly identify even my feet beneath me me would have been questionable.
Since that race day in 2018, Tim and I (and the rest of the Coconino Cowboys) have continued to run very long distances in very remote terrain. Tim and I (and Jim) even managed to successfully swim across the Colorado River twice during one such endeavor. Sometimes our adventures are in the shining sun and sometimes they’re not. With or without the sun, there’s always some sense of magic, just like at Western States. We’ve yet to see a bear again. I’m grateful for that and I’m grateful for my wild and crazy friends and the excruciating runs we’ve shared together. Without the sun and my friends and our excursions and subsequent races, I wouldn’t have many stories to tell.
I was in Silverton, Colorado in August, 2016 when I first met Dakota Jones. There’s a race there called the Kendall Mountain Run that we were both racing that weekend. It’s a really cool race with a lot of history and the course takes you from downtown Silverton to the top of Kendall Mountain and back, climbing, then descending about four-thousand feet each way with a roundtrip distance of less than thirteen miles. Dakota won the race that year and completely destroyed everyone including me and I’m still trying to forget about the experience to this day.
My friends Anna and Braz were in Silverton that weekend and they told me about their top-secret car camping spot near town and those are all the details I’m at liberty to disclose about the spot because like I said, it’s top secret. When I arrived there, there was more than one vehicle and the one that wasn’t Anna and Braz’s car was Dakota’s truck and I didn’t know Dakota would be camping there with us but I knew it was Dakota’s truck because it’s older and red and the bed is covered so that he can basically live out of it (the truck) and I think I had seen Dakota driving it in some Salomon video or something. (Oh yeah, Dakota is sponsored by Salomon because despite what he might tell you he’s a very, very good runner.) I parked next to his truck and the four of us drank and ate (but mostly just drank) and I’d say we (me and Dakota) genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. It was a very nice time. (I should also note that I’ve always found it odd that Dakota drives a truck, since he’s also an avid environmental activist and you would think that a person like that (one who cares about the environment a lot and vocalizes those cares) wouldn’t even own his own vehicle much less a truck. But then he also traveled to Europe one summer by boat to reduce his environmental impact and two summers ago he rode his bicycle all the way from Durango, Colorado to Colorado Springs to run the Pikes Peak Marathon (Oh yeah, he won that race, too.) and then biked all the way back home to Durango after the race. So I’m not sure if those good environmental deeds offset the fact that he drives a truck or if the moral calculus doesn’t work like that and he’s not off the hook for his oil-guzzling habits. Moral judgments can get really messy and it feels like I’ve gone too far off track already. But in my estimation, Dakota is a good guy.)
Like I said, that’s the first time I met Dakota. It was about half a year later the next time I saw him and we were in Salida, Colorado then. It was March of 2017 and we were both there to run a race called the Run Through Time Marathon. It’s a mountainous trail marathon and the area is very beautiful and I had the sneaking suspicion that Dakota was about to kick my ass again. If you know Dakota, you know that he likes to beat people in races but he also understands that races don’t really matter and that other things like interesting conversation and good coffee and relationships are way more important. Dakota also likes to have a good time. I’ll tell you two quick stories to get the point (that Dakota likes to have fun with friends) across.
The Hardrock 100 is a one-hundred mile endurance race that starts and finishes in Silverton, Colorado. I was at the race in 2018 and so was Dakota. I don’t think either of us had any particular reason to be there except that it’s (the race is) a wonderful excuse to spend a long weekend in the San Juan Range in July. As I recall it was a Saturday afternoon and we decided we’d get a late lunch at a mexican restaurant and the next thing I knew there were tequila shots and gin and tonics and it was a lot of drinking for any time but it was especially a lot for the middle of the day. We ended up at a bar later that night and listened to live music and danced and drank more. (Silverton is quite an interesting town and it’s hard to classify some of the businesses as any one single thing. The place with the band and the bar is also a restaurant serving lunch and dinner. I suppose the money making season, which is largely the summer, is short enough that places have to maximize their profits as much as possible and one way to do that is to be open for business nearly any time day or night. Hence the multi-purpose businesses.) We ended up staggering to our truck beds very late in the night but before we went to bed we (Dakota and me and my girlfriend) found two foam noodles (the ones that are hollow in the middle and are used to keep you afloat in a pool or a body of water and you can also fill them up with water and blow into the interior of the tube to watch the water erupt out the other end) and proceeded to beat the crap out of each other while laughing hysterically.
Another instance that illustrates what I’m talking about is less of one particular instance and more of an epidemic amongst Dakota and his group of friends in Durango. (Dakota now lives in Bozeman, Montana to study engineering in the hopes of some day solving some of the world’s problems.) I really can’t tell this story to its fullest extent because I saw very little of what I’m about to describe but basically for an entire summer Dakota and his buddies tried to ice each other at every possible opportunity and each individual icing scenario seemed equally hilarious when told to me. If you don’t know what it means to get iced, it means that through trickery and furtive planning someone will hide a Smirnoff Ice in an unseen location with the intention of some other person unintentionally finding it, at which time the surprised recipient is obligated to get on a knee and chug it. (As an aside, I’ve been the unfortunate recipient of a self-icing wherein I placed a Smirnoff Ice somewhere, forgot about it, and then discovered it myself at a later time. I was alone but I respect the rules so I then chugged it.) So this group of guys goes through an entire summer of this and everyone gets iced who knows how many times and it escalates so far that one day Dakota discovered that his water flasks he uses while running had been partially filled with tequila and now he was sipping a watered down tequila cocktail in the middle of a long run.
But to get back to the main story, we’re in Salida in March of 2017 and the Run Through Time Marathon kicks off. There goes Dakota to the front of the race and I’m getting dropped with no plans to see Dakota until the finish line. The course does a funny thing about eight or ten miles into the race where there’s flagging straight ahead but you can also see flagging on a trail to the right and you’re meant to go straight to do a big loop where you go north then turn west then south and then east where you pass through this main junction again and follow the same flagging that you see off to your right at mile eight or ten when you’re supposed to go straight. Apparently Dakota didn’t pay enough attention or he didn’t look at a course map ahead of time or someone sent him in the wrong direction or whatever and so he takes off to the right and after I don’t know how long he realizes he cut off some of the course. Having the integrity to recognize and accept his misdeed, he then doubled back to get on course again, ran the big loop I described above and continued with the race. But after all that he had added several miles to his day and was way off the lead and he really wasn’t racing anymore.
I didn’t know any of this and assumed Dakota was well on his way to victory, if not already finished, when I heard him shouting as he approached me from behind around mile eighteen. We’d cover the last eight or so miles together and we talked about a bunch of philosophical topics that I know a little bit about and he knew nothing about but he was very curious and asked a lot of questions. I don’t know what our finishing places were in the end and despite the fact that we finished together I believe the official results had me milliseconds ahead of him. (This wouldn’t be the first time I beat Dakota in a race. I ran his wheels off at the Black Canyon 100k last year where I finished third and he was seventh.) Once we finished the race something rather peculiar happened and at the time it felt like a dream and while I’ve thought about it a number of times since then, I haven’t really told anyone about it (the peculiar thing I’m about to tell you about).
After the race ended I was probably only half present because during the race I had a sharp pain develop in my foot and I ran with the pain for the better part of the race and now I could hardly walk and besides I hadn’t fueled well during the race so I was sort of bonking which put me in that weird post-race state where you probably shouldn’t operate heavy machinery and your brain’s computing power is likely no more than half there. (I found out later that I had a stress fracture in my foot.) I’m sort of hobbling along following Dakota who’s slapping hands and talking with a bunch of people he apparently knew or maybe didn’t know but they knew him and the next thing I know we’re inside a building. It was the same building where we had picked up our bib numbers that morning. It felt abandoned now. The folding tables had been removed and the people had vacated and it sort of felt like we were trespassing. But Dakota walked right in and he went up some stairs and through a closed door that I would have guessed was locked and he was moving so confidently that you would have thought he had walked these rooms dozens of times. We entered this adjacent room and as I remember it, there was nothing there except for a piano smack dab in the middle. Dakota didn’t say anything but simply walked over to the piano, pulled out the bench from under it, sat down, exposed the piano keys by lifting the wooden canopy, and began tapping the keys. He muttered something about the piano being slightly out of tune and then he started playing a song. He would later tell me, “I can always sniff out a piano.” I never did find out if he had knowledge of this piano’s whereabouts beforehand.
You have to remember that I was in that other-wordly, undernourished, dehydrated post-race state and just like a quesadilla made at the race finish line would have tasted like a Michelin three-star meal, it’s entirely possible that any classical music would have, in that moment, sounded like Beethoven himself was playing it. Because when he started playing it did sound like Beethoven was playing and it was as though all of my senses suddenly returned to me at once and in an instant I was hyper aware, serenely aware of my surroundings. I’m looking at Dakota and his legs are covered in dirt and his untied shoes are filthy (I don’t know when he made the time to untie them) and I was far enough away that I couldn’t smell him but I had been close enough earlier to know that he definitely carried a less than agreeable stench, yet his fingers were flowing and his concentration was stern but his posture was relaxed and the room was being filled with this beautiful music. None of it seemed real but it also felt more real than anything. The juxtaposition was profound. (I feel compelled to let you know, reader, that Dakota himself has admitted to me that he is no Beethoven but he’d like you to think he is and he’s gone very far to convince people that he is a world-class pianist. Before he moved to Bozeman, he was renting a trailer on a family’s property outside Durango. He had a keyboard with pre-recorded songs and more than once when he saw the family outside he would crack a window and play one of the pre-recorded songs (Beethoven) and when he would next see the family face-to-face they would laud his pianist skills and compliment him to a significant end. That poor family probably still thinks he’s some piano genius because he never corrected them. This actually happened as far as I know because when he recounted the above to me I asked him several times if he was kidding and he reassured me that this indeed happened.)
The thing that strikes me about that day at the Run Through Time Marathon in Salida has to do with what I learned about Dakota. I learned a lot about his attitude toward life, his worldview and how he handles himself. You might recall, as I mentioned in passing at the start of this story, that Dakota is a winner of both the Kendall Mountain Run and the Pikes Peak Marathon. He’s also won races like the Imogene Pass Run and the heavily contested Transvulcania Ultramarathon and he’s finished second (twice) at what has historically been the U.S.’s most competitive 50-mile race, The North Face 50 Mile Championships. The point is that Dakota Jones is a very good runner and he literally made a career of it for many years (and perhaps will for many years still), including during this time in Salida when he went off course and finished way, way off the lead. Yet despite the unfortunate outcome, which he probably never thought much about ever again, he talked cordially with people at the finish line, he went out and enjoyed time with people he cares about that night, and he played piano. He didn’t mope or get angry or storm off or make a big deal about it. He didn’t get on social media and concoct some larger-than-life story about how things were stacked against him or how he was running so hard that he was blacking out and didn’t see the course flagging. He didn’t make excuses or tell tall tales. He didn’t do well at something he’s meant to do well at and in response he made music.
There’s an important lesson here about life and intention and perception and reaction and I think we should all play more piano.