Getting up the hill this particular day wasn’t going to be easy. When I awoke, the gently flaking sky seemed benign enough, but now, half-way up Green Mountain, my jacket is soaked through, I’m slogging through shin-deep powder and a raucous north wind is inducing periodic white-out conditions. Up here on the hill, the snow rate has officially crossed the line from “bucolic snow-globe scene” to “blizzard”. A quick tag of the summit and I turn to begin the slalom back down, eager to regain the shelter of the forest.
As I’m running the streets back down to my apartment—indulgently striding right down the center, taking advantage of the universally higher amounts of inertia that exist in homes on weekend mornings, especially when it’s snowing—I am reminded of my roots as a runner. When I was 13, I would regularly run 20 milers in this kind of crap, I think. Thirteen. Over 15 years later, my current pursuits—100 mile mountain races, all-day peak-bagging efforts—suddenly make a lot more sense with that kind of perspective and history.
Here in Boulder, this weekend’s snow was, sadly, one of the biggest deposits so far this season. When I was growing up in the windswept, rural hills of Nebraska, it seemed a dump of 10-12″ was a weekly occurrence throughout the winter season. And in Nebraska the snow was always whipped into epic, car-swallowing snow drifts by the unceasing, rasping wind. In Nebraska, wind is the default. It took real resolve to run through a Nebraska winter, and the winter of 1996-1997 was an exceptional one.
The previous summer, I had run my first marathon around Lake Okoboji in northwestern Iowa, and this accomplishment cemented in me the resolve to be a runner. Make no mistake, I already took myself quite seriously—I had training log entries for every day since spring 1995, and I had just finished a marathon—but in the fall of 1996 I consciously raised the stakes.
I remember the conversation quite well. It was mid-August, a month after my marathon, and pre-season junior high football practice had just begun. I was pulling weeds with my Dad in the garden and I was explaining to him how—once school started next week—it seemed like the best way to get my miles in around classes and football practice would be to run to and from school. It was 6.5 miles each way, and by doing this I would eliminate the 15-20min of dead-time riding in the car to town with my schoolteacher Mom in the mornings and then she wouldn’t always have to wait around until after I was done with football practice in order to drive me home. (In retrospect, this was all a bit silly. I was probably gaining myself no more than 30-40min of time each day by not riding in the car. I know for sure that my motivation at the time was in no small part influenced by the Kenyan mythology of running to and from school.)
So that’s what I did. Football was taken out of the equation when I tripped during an impassioned game of hide-and-seek after the first day of school and tore my left knee open, requiring 15 stitches. I was on crutches for a couple of weeks, and I distinctly remember waking up before school to crutch-hop a mile before breakfast. The knee was runnable after a couple of weeks, and it didn’t take long for me to get down to business.
Running to and from school quickly became the norm for me. The 6.5 mile trip into town in the morning would take me anywhere from 40-50min and I developed a trend of veritably tempoing the last 3mi, racing to beat my mom in her car . Taking advantage of the gradual downhill drop into the Missouri River floodplain I would regularly sprint the final mile in 5:10-15. (In the spring I would ultimately fail in my attempt to break 5:00 in the 1600 in junior high, managing only a 5:02. I always blamed it on having to race the 800 first.) My mom would bring my bookbag and change of clothes in on her drive to work, so if I beat her, I would fill the extra time by running laps in the cemetery on the edge of town, waiting for her to drive past.
The run home in the evening was typically a more mellow affair (I’ve always been a morning person), and after changing clothes again I would simply cruise home at an easy effort. Eventually, though, I began increasing the length of the evening outing once or twice a week, deliberately taking the long way home to stretch it into the 10-15mi range. And, on the weekends, I happily engaged in the tradition of a Sunday morning long run. I had a 22mi loop that was the hilliest I could find, deliberately trying to mimic legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard’s famed Waiatarua Circuit on the outskirts of Auckland. Absent any mountain streams, I would jump in the horse tank immediately after these runs, running icy water over my legs with a garden hose while drinking an entire pitcher of orange juice.
In October, I remember I ran my first ever 100 mile week, capped by my usual 22 miler. The real fun began in November, however. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving we only had a half-day of school, so after my now-routine run to school in the morning, I took advantage of the couple extra free hours that afternoon to get in a mid-week long run. Except that a classic Nebraska blizzard was also blowing in. About 10 miles in I distinctly remember my eyeglasses repeatedly freezing over with sleet, but instead of being discouraged I almost took it as a dare and ended up extending the outing to a full 20 miles, just to see if I could, I guess.
Running quickly became the key factor in my identity, much as it is today. At a time when I didn’t feel much identification with my peers, this was how I differentiated myself, bolstered my self-image, and calculated my self-worth. At the time, I wasn’t nearly self-aware enough to fully understand these things, but I did know that setting audacious goals and then assiduously applying myself to achieve them was rewarding in a way that I’d never really known before.
I’m not sure how my parents perceived this craziness (My dad says now, “It was obvious there was no convincing you otherwise, and overall we thought it was a positive pursuit.” After witnessing three meltdowns–and two DNFs–at Leadville, I know his opinion of 100mi races isn’t nearly as charitable). I recall more than one evening where it had long since become dark, maybe snow was blowing and the temps were in the single digits, and my Dad would drive out to find me still a few miles from home. Sometimes I would accept the ride, sometimes not.
As one might expect, I definitely had a successful spring track season—I never lost an 800 or 1600—but that winter would ultimately haunt me for most of my high school running career. Rampant injuries prevented me from ever matching the 20 straight weeks of an average of 80mpw until several years later, and my 1600 time only improved another 10 seconds by the time I graduated high school. (When I was 13, I was only 4’10” and ~80lbs…I think it’s hard to get injured when you’re so tiny. Another interesting fact: during 1996-1997 I logged over 3000 miles injury-free on a single pair of 1980s-era Nikes that my parents bought for me for $1 at the Goodwill.)
Nevertheless, I had definitely cultivated a niche for myself that basically revolved around a nearly unquenchable thirst for high mileage, long runs, and exploring the limits of my endurance. Whenever people ask me how I got started in ultras, it’s a difficult question for me to answer because almost from the very beginning of my running career it simply felt like the obvious path to pursue.
Now, 16 years later and having thoroughly exhausted the mega-mileage approach from 2005-2008 with dozens of 200+ mile weeks, I like to think that I’ve evolved a more sustainable approach to getting outside for long periods of time. There is no question in my mind, however, that those first couple years of running were ultimately beneficial in getting me to where I find myself today.
Sure, the air might’ve been a little thicker in Nebraska, and I don’t ever really wear cotton for winter running anymore, but as I was reminded on my standard 2hr run up and down Green Mountain in a snowstorm yesterday morning, all of those long runs in high plains blizzards were really just a form of experiential foreshadowing for the high-altitude mountain forays I do now. I may have spent eight intervening years suffering through innumerable interval sessions on golf courses and tracks during high school and college (experiences I am glad to have had, but don’t really miss), but now it seems pretty obvious to me that even as a 13 year old in Nebraska I wasn’t really laying a foundation for just a 1mi race around a track. Considering where my running has ended up, all those snowy long runs sure make a lot more sense now.