Gravity

The orange in Matty Fierce’s shorts popped like the autumn leaves as he moved with ease along the single track pushing towards the top. I stopped to remove my long sleeves. I paused momentarily to feel the contrast of the warm sun and cool breeze on my skin.

This was my first trip back to the Smokies since December and movement (especially uphill) did not come easy. Camus’ words flooded the space in my head…

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

I tucked my shirt away, lowered my head and continued the march towards the heights…

I had missed this feeling… feeling small… feeling ancient… feeling connected to something much, much bigger than myself.

No matter how long I stay away from the mountains, they are always waiting with arms wide open.

But what drives us to push towards the heights? What pushes us to race the setting sun…

In hopes of watching the sun drop below the horizon?

At what point does the night no longer feel threatening and we become comfortable in the darkness?

When do we become content with discomfort because we know the beauty it may yield?

I believe a few of us have come to truly understand these things are momentary. These moments… this life… it’s all fleeting… but the beautiful part is the fact the we have the opportunity to choose how we spend these precious moments.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”

We have the power of choice and we actively make choices each day. Bad things happen. Good things happen. That’s the ebb and flow of life. We can choose to embrace the feeling… the discomfort… the happiness… the sadness… or… we can let those circumstances define us and choose to take no action. Inaction is a choice.

The truth is… we’re all going to die. Momento Mori. I can honestly say a day doesn’t pass where I don’t think about death and the essence of existence. The point of this daily reminder isn’t to be morbid… the point is to inspire, motivate and clarify life and it’s purpose.

But for me… I’m reminded of the haunting words from Maynard Keenan that are etched in sun-faded ink under my skin…

“I am surrendering to the gravity and the unknown.
Catch me, heal me, lift me back up to the sun
I choose to liv
e.”

I choose to live.

Pressure

This time last year I was in some of the best run shape of my life racing at the Cruel Jewel 56 miler. I was light, nimble and fast. I was putting down solid weekly mileage and enjoying the process.

This year… life looks different. I’m lucky to get 5-10 miles in a week and probably haven’t glazed over 100 miles in the entire year. Other people seem to be more concerned with my lack of running than I am. I’ve had to reassure many folx that I’m not depressed and wilting away. It’s just my passion and priorities have changed a bit for the time being.

To be honest, fitness and being able to run long distances has been so far off the priority list at the moment…. and honestly… I’ve been ok with it. For the past 10-12 years I’ve been pounding out long efforts and heavy mileage. Running had been a top tier priority, but now, my priority isn’t fitness focused but instead… intellectual and career focused. My body probably deserved a lil break.

Some of the issue has been a nagging groin injury but mostly, I was tired of the internal AND external pressure of feeling the need to have to maintain a certain level of fitness year round. Running got to feeling like a second job. I was in desperate need of setting some boundaries to hopefully change my mood/mindset. Running just wasn’t fun anymore… so I stopped.

But the philosopher says… “No pressure, no diamonds.” He ain’t wrong. Pressure can be good. Pressure can be healthy. Pressure can inspire and motivate us to aim higher and reach lofty goals. Pressure can also be devastating and disastrous. Pressure can be binding and keep us from success. Like all things in this world… it’s about balance.

I had to reevaluate. What types of diamonds were important to me at the moment? Running didn’t make the list.

💎 #1: My career. I just passed the 1 year mark as a clinical therapist with Central Alabama Wellness. I love my job. Its something I’m passionate about and want to make into a lifelong career. Like most careers and ya know… things like… running… they take a lot of effort, training and study to do well.

💎 #2: Leisure time. I’m bad bad at resting and relaxing. Leisure time is something my wife has harped on and encouraged me to do for years but something I have failed at time and time again. Leisure time can improve overall cognitive wellbeing, physical health, and quality of life. This concept really didn’t sink in until this year. I’ve always felt the need to keep pushing, but sometimes we need rest and lighter moments. It’s something I still struggle with but is getting better.

💎 #3: SpecV. In high school I was obsessed with cars but I let that passion die. A year or so ago I sold the trusty ole Honda Element when it surpassed 300k miles and bought an older manual Sentra SpecV. I absolutely love this car. It’s fun as hell to drive and has been a blast getting back into the car scene.

After a 5 month break from almost all exercise, I’m back running some short miles and working out. My running is labored, hard and HOT but the consistency is slowly coming back. I don’t suspect any 100 mile races in the near future. Mainly, I’ve missed the mountains and running with my friends and need to be in good enough shape to play with them again. I did somehow manage to Couch to 26.3 mile run/hike the Alabama Trailblaze Challenge a few weeks ago so I know the longer distances are still buried deep within my soul…

Also, we raised over $1 million dollars this year… which is NUTS!

But I suppose… This is my life and its ending one moment at a time… so I reckon it’s time for me to shed the winter coat and start working towards that Tyler Durden sculpted Fight Club body… ooof… I may need to call upon Ellison Fitness to get me there 😅

Cyclic

I haven’t been running much in the past few weeks. If I’m being honest, I haven’t had much motivation in the running department and it’s felt more like a chore than something of enjoyment. Often when I start focusing more on numbers, time or a long race… I experience a little burn out and that initial inspiration starts to dwindle. Truthfully, not running as much really hasn’t bothered me. The good thing about not solely basing your identity in one area is that you don’t create unnecessary, unhealthy pressure on yourself to have to live up to a certain expectation. I’ve found it better in some ways to be a chameleon.

Dedication is strange because dedication is where you get good at shit and get to experience things the undedicated don’t get to experience, but dedication can also lead to emptiness in other avenues of one’s life. Take running a 100 miles for example…. despite what Weed Goat has to say, a 100 miles is a long freakin’ way. Whether you run, walk, crawl or even DNF… the simple act of training for such a distance requires persistence and sacrifice in other areas of your life. Maybe you’re sacrificing time away from your family and friends, maybe you’re sacrificing other entertainment avenues such as drinking, partying or hitting the bar… maybe it’s sleep. Whatever it may be… dedication leads to sacrifice in some way to pursue a specific goal. I highly respect anyone that committed to pursuing a specific goal.

I’ve really enjoyed training for the “shorter” ultras (specifically 50 milers) in the past year or so. It’s a great distance that allows harder efforts and doesn’t take up an entire 24hrs. Plus, the training doesn’t have to be as intensive. I’ve found a lot of balance in that type of training and it’s been mostly lighthearted and fun. Ive gotten the opportunity to focus on multiple areas of life without having the main focus be running.

I think part of the lack of inspiration, dedication and motivation I’ve felt lately stems from signing up for another 100 miler. It’s been 2 years since I’ve covered the distance and just haven’t been able find that deep rooted desire to put forth the training to perform the way I would like to perform in that specific distance. Training has kinda been redundant and boring. Perhaps it’s running the same repetitive run around my neighborhood or the same ole drony long run at Red Mtn, but whatever the core of it’s cause… it doesn’t really matter.

Part of covering different distances in this sport is figuring out what you enjoy the most. Ive been dabbling in this sport for 10 years now and still learning what I enjoy the most. I think at the top of it all… I like the simple art of moving your body through a beautiful environment and the connection it brings with nature.

Chimney Tops from the off trail manway in GSMNP

In the past few months, my focus, time and energy has shifted more towards music and crafting my therapeutic practice in the work setting rather than running. Those 2 areas are where I’m feeling most inspired and motivated so naturally, they’ve been receiving the bulk of my thoughts and time.

I’ve been writing a ton songs and it’s been hella fun and a great outlet for me. On the work front, I’ve been exploring other avenues of the mental health world such as after hours crisis, probate/court psych evals. It’s been a fun process discovering what area of therapy speaks to me most.

The older I get, the more I’m starting to recognize my own cycles/patterns of behaviors. More importantly, I’ve started to honor those aspects of my intuition. I’ve found that I don’t always have to be inspired or be on fire to run… and when these cycles happen… it’s important to recognize that it’s natural and I shouldn’t throw too much emphasis on trying to figure out the “why” behind it. That fire is always there… it just sometimes presents as a slow burning simmer instead of a raging flame.

I went out yesterday with Matty Fierce to nail down the Thrift Store Half Marathon route.

The cool crisp of the approaching Fall in the air and being back on some good ole fashion single track produced a sense of excitement for Fall/Winter trail running. I’m looking forward to getting back to some fun and relaxed running without being so goal focused here in the next month or so.

Does anyone else have patterns in their own lives they’ve recognized?

“We all just live in cycles. We all belong to the stars. Our souls long for revival. Be true to who you are.”

Locked Up

Another headline stating a repeat felon was released from jail, went straight back to their criminal behavior and ended up back in jail. These types of headlines have become far too common. No one is surprised. Most people just read the article title, shake their head and continue scrolling without given it a second thought.

“Well, they’re just bad people and criminals. It’s who they are and that’s how it’s gonna be.”

Is it though? Is that how it’s gotta be? Are they despicable people? Or….. are their behaviors despicable?

Hate the behavior, not the person. That’s an important concept. Learn it. It brings compassion and grace.

As a society, we’ve established the prison system as punishment. Rightfully so, people that break the law should be punished. However, if the sole purpose of prison is punishment, how do we expect any actual change in behavior to take place if nothing is being done to actively change said behavior. These offenders are locked up and stuck in confinement to not only dwell in a physical cage… but perhaps even worse… stuck dwelling in the cage of their mind for far longer than they should. Most institutions don’t provide any sort of mental health services. Sad… but it’s the truth.

Most of my week is spent in a small office providing therapy related to mental illness for adults. Some people want to learn how to better manage depression and anxiety symptoms, some people struggle with psychosis, some people want to regain the self-worth they’ve lost, some people want to know how to effectively communicate in their relationships… the list is endless. The truth of the matter is, everyone could benefit from therapy. Therapy isn’t just for people who have “problems”, therapy is also coming into the office saying “I’m a good husband, but I want to be a great husband. How do I get there?” Its coming in and saying “I’m very successful at my business, but lack self-worth in other aspects of my life. I want ___.” Therapy can be a monumental transition into better living.

4 days of my week are spent in that kind of setting… but every Wednesday… my office looks different.

On Wednesdays, I typically swing by the office for a bit to check in to ensure there’s nothing pending or pressing. After catching up on notes or squeezing in a few individual sessions… I hop in my car and drive through a cute, old southern downtown area. Beautiful flowers line the porches of gorgeous craftsman style houses. I pull up to a stop sign and wave at the adorable old man in overalls watering his garden.

From there, I pull off onto a bumpy side street and make my way through a chain linked fence with razor wire adorning the top. I park my car and walk to the back door. I wait patiently as I hear the locking mechanism click and watch the heavy metal plated door slide open. I enter another space where I again wait for the door behind me to close and the one in front of me to open. I pass through a metal detector and hand off my bag to be placed in the sergeant’s office.

“How many we got on watch today Sarg?”

Before starting my day at the jail, I’ll swing by the nurses office to check in to see if there’s anyone that needs to be seen that hasn’t sent a request. Some people lose family members while incarcerated and they’re left to grieve alone. The nurse does a great job of identifying those scenarios and keeps me informed.

Depending on the day, I either get placed in a small room outside of the main booking space or in the inmate side of visitation. They’re remodeling the room that I’ll be consistently set up in, so I get escorted to a long, small room where inmates sit for visitation.

The room is slender, cramped, unwelcoming and warm. The AC broke earlier that day and the repair man hasn’t been out to work on it yet. I roll up my sleeves and unbutton the top of my shirt.

The stools anchored into the ground are hard and uncomfortable. They’re not meant for comfort or extended use. Typically, the chairs are used for 10-15min phone conversations through a small 3 x 12 inch glass window. Thankfully I’m able to pull 2 foldout chairs into the room to make myself and my clients more comfortable.

The first order of every visit is to clear the suicide watch list. A young man is escorted into the small room with me. He’s handcuffed and wearing a smock. A suicide smock is a tear-resistant garment that is used to prevent an individual from forming a noose with the garment. The suit covers all private areas because the wearer is naked under the suit for their own protection.

image from Hamilton Medical Products

The guard sits the client down in the chair in front of me, gives me a nod and exits the room. As the guard exits the room to head back to the booking area… I hear the heavy door shut and the locking mechanism click into place. Yes… I’m on camera… but I’m also a lifetime away from someone opening that secure door.

I immediately send nonverbal signals by sinking back and relaxing into my foldout chair to diffuse any initial hostile perceptions…

Hey man… my names Zach. How ya doing?”

The response varies from the nonchalant “man, I’m not doing too bad…” to the aggravated “I can’t fuckin deal with this shit anymore. I’m just done, man. Fuck this shit I’m done.”

Laughter or tears. There’s no in between.

My therapeutic approach has always been person-centered. According to the Great Carl Rogers…

“Individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and for altering their self-concepts, basic attitudes, and self-directed behavior; these resources can be tapped if a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.”

In Layman terms… every person has the capacity and desire for personal growth and change. In person centered therapy, therapists provide empathy and unconditional positive regard to help create change in an individual. Therapists don’t instigate change… they simply help clients come to their own personal insight and conclusions to make changes. Therapists facilitate… the real work is done by clients… not therapists.

Every person is different and thus every person deserves a unique approach… hence my belief in person centered therapy…

I go through a detailed clinical assessment with each client on suicide watch. Some clients claim suicidal ideations (SI) to get out of their cell, some claim SI because of boredom and some truly are suicidal. Despite the outcome of the assessment, I always offer further mental health services. Most want services. Most want to have someone to talk to and work through their shit while they’re incarcerated. I’m starting to get the impression that it gets lonely as fuck in jail.

After the watches are cleared, I start working through the list of inmates that have requested mental health services. The list isn’t short. The list isn’t something I’m able to tackle in a day… or even in the next few weeks for that matter. I wish I had more time. I wish these folxs had more resources. I wish… I wish I could do more.

I walk down the hallway into the main booking room where a recent arrest is screaming loudly and aggressively resisting the officers. He’s high as a kite. He’s fucked up. He’s scared. He’s lost. He’s screaming nonsense. He’s… he’s needing help… but help can’t be got until he comes down from his high. Hopefully I’ll see him next week.

I wait while the guards go through the booking protocol. I patiently watch and observe.

The guards are amazing. They don’t see the inmates as anything other than human. The guards are calm. They’re respectful. They’re diligent. They’re genuine. I’m proud to be working hand-in-hand with these folx. Despite the media push that law enforcement is “bad”… it’s relieving to see firsthand that at its core… law enforcement… and humanity in general… are good. Don’t get it twisted… there are many bad apples in every every orchard… but don’t let the media fool ya… the majority of humanity is alright. We’re alright… I promise.

After the scene calms down, I ask for the clients I see on a weekly basis.

Can I get XXX next?”

Despite the response, my affect always stays neutral.

“Damn. Ok…. Well… can I get XYZ?”

XXX had just received her sentence earlier in the week and is heading down to serve her time in prison.

XXX was one of my favorites. It took her a few sessions to truly open up, but after the rapport was built and the trust was gained… we had started focusing on some intensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In a nutshell… CBT focuses on changing patterns of thinking by focusing on the thoughts/patterns that are creating problems and re-engineering them. It’s a very simple concept that takes a TON of actual effort on the clients behalf. Change isn’t easy. Most people aren’t willing to sacrifice what it takes to make actual change in their behavior. I’m honest with my clients… if they’re willing to put in the effort and work… big changes can happen… but… the effort has to be there.

XXX had the desire and put in the effort. She bought in. We discussed coping skills, explored mindfulness and processed techniques that she could utilize while she served her time. We formalized support systems and structures to actively allow her to escape her environment and make changes when she gets released in a few years.

Was it enough? Will she retain the techniques? Will she hold onto that hope that she created during our sessions together? I hope so. God I hope so. I hope she serves her time, follows through with her intentions and climbs out of the dark, depressive hole in which she currently resides. She deserves it. She’s truly a wonderful human that’s been dealt a troublesome hand. I may never hear/see from her again… but I’ll pray for her often.

XXX is one. One soul who bought into the idea of change. One soul that came to the understanding that her current predicament isn’t who she is and doesn’t have to be her future. XXX was given the chance to seek mental health services while incarcerated… she was given the opportunity to work on changing her behavior.

But how many don’t get that opportunity? There are currently 1.8 MILLION… yes MILLION… people incarcerated in the US. How many of those are getting actual opportunities to change?

I’m hoping your heart sank like mine.

I don’t have the answers… so don’t ask me what I think should be done. Hell… at this point… I’m not even sure of the question that needs to be asked. All I know is… I recognize the struggle and the hardships that community mental health agencies face. We’re trying. We’re throwing every hour, every physical body and every resource available to serve the public to the best of our ability… honestly… to the point where people are burning out and giving up. Until we… as a society… start recognizing the importance of investing time and effort into providing opportunities to change inmate’s behavior while within our penal system…we won’t see change. Perhaps it is the lack of resources. Perhaps it’s governmental laziness. Whatever the case may be… change is hard…change takes effort… change needs to happen… but people resist change for these reasons. So I’m curious… as someone with opportunity… what changes are you willing to make in your own life to help create a better future for yourself and the people around you?

When Darkness Falls

Start of Hellbender 100

Distance doesn’t make the runner. We’ve all heard the “you’re a runner whether you run 1 mile or 100 miles” saying and I whole heartedly stand by that. You’re no less a runner if you’re doing 5ks and your friends are doing 50ks. It’s all about personally preference and insight.

I remember starting my own venture into the trail world. The forest adventure side of me began as a kid and stayed with me through college. Despite an unbeknownst passion for wanting to run wildly through the woods for no good reason, I never got to pursue trail running in college.

“I’m paying you to throw a baseball… not to run.”

For NCAA and clarification reasons… this “payment” was in reference to scholarships, not actually money…. so don’t get yourself into a legal tizzy.

After I got married in June 2010, I signed up for my first 50k in February. Over the course of the 6 months, I fell in love with the extended time I was spending in the woods. My first race at Black Warrior 50k destroyed me. It hurt so bad. Cramps, blisters… all the good stuff associated with ultras happened to me along that muddy ass course… but I finished.

Black Warrior 50k – 2011

I’ve seen a lot of folks go straight for 100 milers. They’ll complete a 50k and just go big. More power to those people, but that just wasn’t me. Maybe I’m old school and don’t need that instant gratification. I’ve always enjoyed the process and the build up.

It took yeeeeeeaaaaaarrrrssss and countless shorter races before I attempted my first 100 miler. Along the way I knew I had the ability to go out and finish the distance, but I wanted to be able to enjoy the process and the experience on race day.

1st 100m – Bryce 100 – finish (2014)

The trail / ultra world especially, falls prey to the “you’re not a real ultra runner unless you’ve done a 100 miler.”

Blah blah blah. I mean if we’re technically speaking… anything over 26.2 miles is considered an ultra. Personally, I love the 50 mile distance. I feel it gives ya errrrythang that’s great about ultra running. It’s a distance where you can push fairly hard, spend the majority of the day in the woods/mountains and still experience those lovely highs and lows without being completely wrecked for days/weeks post race.

But there’s a few things that distance may not always give you… like overnight running.

Everyone has different feels about being in the woods at night. I freakin love it. I don’t know if there’s a more exciting feeling than watching the sun set over the mountains knowing you’re about to embark on an all night push. Something about being in the middle of nowhere at 3am doing an activity very few folks do, really puts me at peace and helps me feel connected to the universe. Maybe it’s because most people in the surrounding area are fast asleep and there’s a little less clustered thoughts in the world. Maybe the veil is thinner during those moments and it’s easier to access the heavens.

It’s been a long time since I’ve gone that long. The last time I covered the 100 mile distance was 2 years ago at the Hellbender 100.

I had just started grad school so I had yet to be demolished by the whole “you’ve sold your soul and time to this program and must give an absurd amount of your energy and life to accomplishing this goal” lifestyle.

I couldn’t fathom training for such distance while in grad school, so I stuck to shorter distances. I was able to sneak in a 78 miler, but that was more of a relaxed, fun, solo outing to reconnect with my mountain and to feel alive again.

Now that I’m done with school and starting to settle into only working life, I can start back into a running routine again. Honestly, I’ve felt like a nomad for the last couple of weeks trying to figure out what and where exactly I’ll be working, but I’ve finally settled into an outpatient mental illness therapist position working with both adults and adolescents. Hell, I’ll even have an actual office come Monday 🤘🏼. I’m stoked to have this routine structure back in my life… so stoked that I’ve already started scheduling long runs and hopped into a new training plan for a 100 in the Fall. I’m excited about getting back on that grind and looking forward to an adventurous, hot ass summer in the woods!

The Good Life

What makes you do good? Where does this good come from? God? Are we wired as humans to instinctively do good? I personally believe that humans at their core are morally good. Like everything else, there are exceptions. Wires get crossed and chemicals become imbalanced, but for the most part, the majority of humans are good and capable of doing good things. But honestly… does it really matter where the desire to be good comes from?

Working as a therapist in the public mental health world, you get exposed to everything from mental illness to substance use. During intake assessments one of the main prompts is essentially: In your own words, what brings you here today?

For some, it’s mandated by local courts…

Man, I fucked up. Cops busted me with a little cocaine and I just need em out of my hair.”

If that’s the reason the client wants to get better and start doing good, is it wrong?

For others, it’s a want or need to make changes or improvements in their lives.

If I don’t make some changes and get my shit together, my kids are gonna get taken from me.”

Big or small… no matter the reason… there can be no bad reason to be good.

For many, religion is a key component of why people are good. Christianity leads its followers to believe that if you are a good person, believe in specific things, you’ll go to Heaven. On the other side of the spectrum, if you do bad things and don’t believe, you’ll go to Hell. Now I’m not a fan of fear based tactics… but not being thrown into a lake of fire and being eternally tormented is a damn(ed) good reason to be good. And if that’s your reason for being good… so be it.

pic: Owlcation

What about those who don’t believe in God at all? What’s their reason for being good? Is their reason to be good less valid because they don’t believe in God or don’t follow the same religious practices or beliefs as you? No. Anyone’s reason to be good is a valid reason.

Same theory applies to those experiencing suicidal ideations. There is no wrong or insignificant reason to stay alive.

It sounds like you’re stronger than you think you are. Tell me, how have you managed to stay alive this long?”

It’s stupid, but I can’t stand the thought of leaving my cat behind. Every time I have a suicidal thought, I think of my cat and how lost she would be without me. How confused she’d be if I didn’t come home.”

our 2 cats:
Wobbles (top) Vinmo (bottom)

If your cat is what’s keeping you alive… that’s a 100% valid and good reason to stay alive. That is an identified strength and can be utilized to combat distressful, suicidal thoughts. You roll with that strength and through the process, help that person identify more reasons to stay alive.

Would you even think to say “Oh, your cat? That’s a stupid reason to stay alive.”

Absolutely not. That would be absurd. So what makes us attack others’ lifestyles or beliefs if they’re still being a good human?

I have a hard time understanding how people can completely bash another’s belief or lifestyle simply on the basis that it doesn’t align with their own personal beliefs. The cool thing about this human experience is that every single individual has the opportunity and autonomy to believe in and live as they see fit. Are you being lawful? Are you causing no harm? Are you trying to be a good human? Yea? That’s great. Keep doing you boo.

Part of my duty as a therapist is to advocate for those who can’t always advocate for themselves, to help give a voice to the voiceless and to help people reach their own goals and make their own changes to help them live their best human life.

Regardless of who you are or what you’ve done, you’ll receive a baseline of support and love from me.

Black, white, purple, reptilian…

pic: The Mozilla Blog

Trans, bi, gay, asexual…

It doesn’t matter. If you’re a good person, there’s about a 100% chance Ima love and support you.

The truth is… no one knows the truth. I personally don’t believe we’re built to completely understand this existence while in human form. But we can’t deny that there’s an inner presence in each of us, no matter how big or small, that pushes us to be good. I’ve found that it takes no actual skill to be compassionate and kind to one another… its not an extremely difficult task. I think the media wants us to believe the world is far worse off than it actually is… that people are rooted in evil. We’re truly not as bad as we’re made to believe. We just all need to keep our heads up and our hands out.

So whatever your reason for being good… keep it up. You’re doing great.

6593

“What’s the numbers on your chest represent? A phone number? Social security number? A specific date?”

Actually, it’s the elevation of my favorite mountain.

I never expect anyone to understand. Sure, there’s a few that truly understand the feeling of having your soul and heart attached to a certain place, but for the most part, people just shrug and move on as they do with most tattoo questions.

Mount LeConte has held a special place in my heart since the moment I turned the corner at Inspiration Point and my heart fluttered with excitement at the site of the distant Anakeesta ridge.

First trip up LeConte: 2013

LeConte has been a critical part of cultivating so many amazing friendships…

It’s been the home of some wild and crazy solo adventures like The Great Ascension (a 78 mile link up of an out and back of every trail connected to LeConte)

GatlinDome… a +40 mile loop from my hotel in downtown Gatlinburg up and over Clingmans and back…

And some non solo adventures like… Fav 2 Fav… a +40 mile point to point that linked LeConte and Rocky Top…

And the sunset after an off trail free climb of Charlie’s Bunion

Everything from hot summer runs with cool downs in Pigeon River…

Beautiful, crystal clear skies…

Classic Smoky Mtns…

Foggy, enchanting tunnels into the magic forest…

Cold, snowy, freezing weather….

Solo midnight summits…

After hours stargazes and a lot of good, clean fun…

The mountain has even inspired a lot of great songs found on my Huggins Hell EP and The Mountains Are Calling

To say the least, LeConte is a staple in my life.

A few weeks ago, Matty Fierce and I went up to celebrate my graduation. When I received my undergrad degree in kinesiology, I went through the entire process of walking across stage and taking ALL the pictures, but wanted something a lil more intimate and special for my graduate degree.

When me and MF head to the Smokies, we typically try and slide in some newer trails as to slowly check em off the map. We spent the previous day running a 25 mile route on a few trails we’d never been on that lead us to familiar spots.

But I really really wanted to be on my mountain for graduation. So we bounced up Alum and hit the usual spots like the Lodge and the summit…

And Myrtle Point…

As we started making our way over to Cliff Top, I came across a stick that resembled the shape of a diploma.

I’ve got an idea for a graduation picture…”

The rocks were empty when we arrived…

But soon enough, a hiker came up and offered to take a picture.

It was perfect. I’ve had a lot of cool photos with a lot of amazing people on LeConte, but this photo will always hold a significant spot in my heart. It means so much more than I’m willing and able to express through text.

After the trip, I posted the pic on one of the Smokies Facebook pages. I had always enjoyed seeing others’ pictures and experiences that get posted there and just thought maybe others would like to share in this one. It was well received.

It even got pushed around enough that Abby Kousouris of WVLT in Knoxville reached out for an interview!

After that, Tandra Smith of Al.com reached out for an interview!

At this point in my life, I’m feeling extremely grateful. Grateful for a body that allows me to move across mountainous terrain to see the wonders of the world… grateful for the love and support I’ve received and have in my life… grateful for all the people and experiences… simply put… I just feel grateful. I’d even go as far as saying #grateful.

If you know me at all… you probably know that I’ve painted my body with the places, experiences and people that I love the most. I don’t ragret any marking I’ve ever made… (not even one single letter) and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so until I make the passage to the next life…

That reminds me… I need to check to see when Justin of Sanctum Tattoos & Comics is free…

Until then… peace, love and 6593.

Zach of All Trades, Master of… Education?

As most of you know, one of my BIGGEST passions in life is MUT running, but I tend to dabble in just about everything. I love to play/write/sing music solo and with my band, I had a halfway decent baseball career, I’m a sub par mountain biker and tend to just dive in to whatever seems interesting. Typically I can skate my way through anything and at least be semi-good at it. If I pick something up fairly quickly and successfully, Kati will often times throw the “But can you float?” question at me to drop me down a few pegs and keep me humble. And yes for the record… I most certainly cannot float. I sink like the Titanic.

By no means am I a master when it comes to anything… especially trail running. You do anything over the course of a decade, you’re usually able to hone certain skills and get pretty good at whatever that thing is. I personally view trail running as an art form more so than a sport. There’s a certain elegance and beauty in moving seamlessly through rugged, mountainous terrain. I feel like those brief moments of being caught in the flow (if you know, you know) brings a certain level of clarity and freedom. For those few moments, I feel a connection to the higher power and everything goes serene.

To have my name associated with the word master, especially when it comes before the words of education, sounds preposterous (I have to use fancy words… because ya know… higher ed and such). When I graduated with my undergrad from Montevallo in 2009, I swore on everything sacred that I would never go back to school.

Even with a degree in Kinesiology, I had no clue what I actually wanted to do with my life. I bounced around from job to job, learning different skill sets from each, but really didn’t have a passion for a one single thing. Years later in 2017, I had a good job as a Warehouse/Parts Manager working for a company that sold/rented equipment for screening/crushing/drilling rock. I knew absolutely nothing of big equipment and was definitely not mechanically minded, but I learn quickly and am good with people. The work was good but it just wasn’t me. I didn’t feel like I was utilizing my own personal skills to make my community and world a better place. So I took some time to self examine and started compiling a list of all my strengths, weaknesses, what I enjoyed doing, what I didn’t enjoy doing and what I would want a career to look like if I didn’t have any limitations. I took note that people, often complete strangers, would reach out to me and pour out their most personal problems and issues without knowing why they were even talking to me. At the time, I had a really close friend who disclosed her own personal battles with mental health. Hearing her story and struggles made me want to become educated on how I could realistically and genuinely help people struggling with the unseen.

A year earlier, I had started volunteering with Make a Wish and helped launch the Trailblaze Challenge here in Alabama. I really enjoyed the process of getting people to push through their own personal struggles and doubts, to achieve something they thought was damn near impossible. Being able to witness the staff’s love for people was truly inspirational. They sacrifice so much of their time and energy into making dreams come true for kids in need. Seeing how it effected not only the kid, but just as much the family, really hit home as to what kind of good can be done if we could just simply love and show compassion to our fellow human.

All of these factors played into the “hey babe, I think I want to go back and get my master’s degree” statement I made to my wife back in 2018.

I’m not really one to half ass anything. If I’m gonna do something, it’s gonna be whole ass or no ass. After I got accepted into the program, I went hard. I decided to be a full time grad student while working full time. The first Fall semester I took a full load (3 classes) and continued through the summer and remainder of my schooling as a full time student.

It was non stop work. I’d find myself having to come home after a 3hr class, to do homework or a paper for another class. Running quickly took a back seat. My mileage sank but honestly, the busyness made me streamline and rethink my training. Instead of lackadaisical, carefree miles, I had to force myself to make more conscious decisions with my runs. Over time, my runs became ones of better quality. Despite my training looking different, I still found success in the structured process. Pinhoti 100 was the first race I structurally trained, and I ended up with one of my best 100 milers to date.

21:41 – Pinhoti 100 (2018)

I knew going into my 2nd semester that something was going to have to change. My commute for work was approximately 1-1.5hrs one way and with having class 2-3 nights a week, it just wasn’t working out. I hated to leave (cuz it was like a $10 an hour pay cut), but it was necessary in order to pursue this goal. So with a whiskey drink and cake, I said farewell to Crusher Works…

And hello to Impact Sports Rehab.

Impact was 3 minutes away from the house, 10 minutes away from school and allowed me to work part time w/ flexible hours as needed for school. Not only did I get to utilize my undergrad degree for the first time, but I also got to see the impact Physical Therapists and PTAs have on people’s lives and the community. I was immediately brought into the family, but it was a family I already knew since I had done my own rehab there in 2017 when I did PT for a 360° labrum tear in my shoulder.

I enjoyed my time at Impact, but I knew that I couldn’t work there for the remainder of grad school. Financially I couldn’t keep digging our family into a hole and my internship requirements would place me working the same hours as the PT clinic was open. So after a year at Impact… it was back to retail…. another thing I swore off for good.

I hopped into a retail supervisory role at America’s Thrift Store and worked mainly nights and weekends. Since my internship required 600hrs, I was going to have to break it up into 2 semesters. It can be done in 1 semester, but that would a 40hr/week internship, and again, financially I couldn’t just not work for 5 months. So I slipped into a routine where I would go to my internship site rom 7a-12p and then close the store from 1p-930p. The days I had class, I’d either open the store from 7a-330p and do class from 5p-830p or do a full 8hrs of internship before class. It. Was. Exhausting. I found that running just couldn’t be a main focus and had to slide into the self-care slot. Some mornings I’d wake up and run early, some days I’d run after I got off work late at night and other days I just couldn’t pull myself out the door for a run. It took some time, but I eventually accepted this season of my life and allowed myself to run when I felt like it and not put too much stock into performance. Despite the lower mileage, I linked together a smooth 50 mile effort at Blood Rock 50. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact it was at the beginning of a 3 week period of no internship/school and it was a cause of celebration!

1st OA ~ 8:38 (Blood Rock 50 – 2020)

My time at the thrift store has been a lot of freakin fun and it’s mostly been the direct cause of the work family.

I’ve got the opportunity to work with some really fabulous people. Seeing the cool and crazy stuff that comes through the store is the highlight of every day, but there’s been some wicked good/bad stories that’s derived from thrift store. If you follow my Instagram you’ve probably seen some of the… unique items that get donated and have probably heard some of the crazy stories of customers and happenstances. I may eventually create a drop down section on my blog called Tales from the Thrift and share some of these stories!

I’m currently in the midst of working out a 2 week notice with the thrift store. My internship is complete, all classes are accounted for, and I passed my comp exam. All that’s left to do is graduate on Saturday. I’ve opted to pick up my degree instead of walking at the ceremony (sorry mom) so I can spend graduation day running on my favorite mountain. I’m extremely lucky to have been given a job opportunity in the field I’ve been studying for the past 2.5 years. I’ve accepted a job as a school based therapist for Shelby County and can’t wait to get started.

If I’m being transparent, I haven’t felt accomplished in a lot of things in life. That’s not to say I don’t recognize that I have accomplished or been successful at things, it’s just I’ve never felt that feeling of accomplishment that I feel like others feel. I can’t remember a single time crossing the finish line of an ultramarathon and feeling like I had accomplished something great. It was the same for baseball. Even after going to the College World Series or being inducted into the UM Hall of Fame, I just didn’t feel that elated feeling of accomplishment. Maybe it’s my own personal self suppressing the need to celebrate. Through team sports, I’ve been trained to show little emotion and to “act like I’ve been here before” after big accomplishments. Celebrating successes and showing excitement instead of internalizing it is something I’m actively working on.

I do feel accomplished for this degree though. Perhaps it was because of all the sacrifices I’ve had to make in order to make this goal happen and it was something that I chose to pursue without any outside influences. Regardless of my own personal pursuit towards this degree, I litrully could have NEVER accomplished it without the unconditional support of Kati.

She’s seen me at my lowest. She’s picked me up and has validated me when I’ve felt like I was an imposter. She’s sacrificed so much of her time and energy to help me pursue this goal. She’s taken 2nd jobs to help cover finances when I was having to cut back hours for my internship. I’m forever grateful to have her as the person I get to walk hand and hand through this experience we call life.

I’m looking forward to so many things post graduation but I think what I’m looking forward to the most is simply getting back to a simple routine. I’ll be back on a M-F schedule and won’t have to be constantly thinking through school and internship. I’ll no longer have plan around weekends, me and Kati will actually get to spend some quality time together, I’ll get to spend more time creating music and running big mountains with my friends. I can get back into a running routine and hell, I might even get to go all out and start dedicating myself to a more serious training regiment.

I’m so thankful to have such a wonderful support system. None of this would have ever been possible if I didn’t have some amazing friends and family in my life.

So cheers to the next stage of life!

Enjoy the Silence

Why are we so afraid of silence? Is it because we’ve clouded our world with perpetual noise and the moment we catch a break in the clatter, we slip into an uncomfortable silence and are forced to confront the thoughts rattling around inside our heads? I think yes.

We’ve created such a world that silence is the enemy. It’s the terrifying demon that lives under the bed that we’re too afraid to confront. We’ve been conditioned in such a way where we have to be consistently stimulated and in depth conversation or something is “wrong.”

Over the years I’ve grown fond of silence. I’ll intentionally set out on a +8hr adventure or take a weekend trip alone to the mountains so that I can spend some time with me. I’ve found it to be very therapeutic to get that alone time and for me personally, physical pursuits in the mountains often resolve (or at least help) any internal struggles. The mountains bring a sense of simplicity and clarity. I believe in the same way psychological issues can directly turn into and/or effect physiological issues, the roles can be reversed.

Typically solo mountain weekends are planned and I prepare myself mentally for the silence. Sometimes they’re not. This past weekend was supposed to be our annual winter edition of Mountains Girls Weekend that we’ve all grown to love, however, a few things popped up and it got canceled last minute. C’est la vie.

This weekend was the last time I’d get an opportunity to get up to the Smokies until March/April, so I needed to make the most of it.

I slowly allowed my body to warm during the half mile gravel jaunt to the Bullhead trailhead before pushing up the mountain. Each time I take Bullhead, it always seems to have a different feel and has turned into one of the prettiest routes up/down LeConte.

The mountain offered no views, so there was no escape from my thoughts. No matter how hard I tried to shake some annoying internal dialogue, I couldn’t seem to suppress it enough to enjoy the joys of the mountain. I finally found some mental reprieve by the time I hit the ridge.

Matty Fierce and I had been up the month prior and encountered a good bit of snow on LeConte, but there was a good 2-4in more this trip! I’d never seen my mountain encased in such beautiful splendor!

Even though Cliff Tops would bring no view, I decided to climb it anyways to see if the heavens would allow for a partial view of the blanketed trees below.

I took a few deeps breaths of the fresh mountain air and stole a moment to stare into the grey abyss before 3 guys approached. I chatted with the 3 college guys for a few minutes before heading over to Myrtle.

Myrtle was even more peaceful than Cliff Tops. I deducted from the perfectly blanketed summit that I was the first person to set foot on its grounds for the day. My thoughts quickly shifted to 2 of my best friends. They just brought in 2 new lil baby boys to the world and I felt compelled to build a tiny lil snowman and say a prayer for each of them. I’m so excited to see their family grow and stoked to see what kind of ridiculousness those 2 future adventurers will pursue!

I was captivated by the haunting beauty of the Smoky Mountains as I made my way back towards the Lodge.

I popped by the lodge to see if the winter caretaker was home. I sent Pnut a quick message but he was off the mountain for the weekend. Still made him a lil snowman though.

Since I’ve never seen this much snow up on LeConte, I took some time and roamed the grounds around the lodge.

6593 for lyfe!!

By the time I left the Lodge I felt that serene, inner peace that the mountains often bring, but the further I descended down Rainbow, the more clouded my head became. I got to Rainbow Falls and had all but decided to just get in my car and go home. I drove out to Pigeon Forge and sat in my warm car wrestling with my next move. Since Mtn Girls Weekend got canceled, I didn’t have a place to stay. I could’ve slept in the back of my car for another night, but was prepared for a warm shower and bed… and a cold sub freezing night in the back of the Element sounded… unpleasant.

I like counseling for a lot of reasons and think it is and could be beneficial for every one. One of the main functions of counseling is to have another person take the clouded or scattered thoughts in your head and reconfigure and present them in a simple way so that you can come to your own conclusion. Counseling aside, it’s important to have those types of people in your life. I’m extremely thankful for the open and honest communication I have with my wife Kati. She helps me sort the cloudiness in my dome piece and simplifies my thoughts more than I can explain.

“Enjoy yourself! Go get a yummy meal and a beer! Watch tv and take a hot shower! Enjoy your life!” ~ Kati

“Are you gonna feel better in the mountains or suck ass Alabama?” ~ Matty Fierce

Between the Dark Princess and MF’s words of encouragement, I decided to go grab a shit ton of chicken nuggies, a few burgers, some beer and booked a cheap hotel next to the river.

Since all the forecasts suggested drizzly, cold rain in the valley and snow flurries and cloud coverage in the higher elevations, I decided to sleep in and enjoy a lazy morning in a warm hotel bed. Of course… the one day I decided to NOT strap on a headlamp and push up a mountain is the one day there’s an epic snowy sunrise on Leconte! My friend Adam Williamson (a local photographer me and MF met over the summer on Cammerer) posted this unreal shot from LeConte!

The good thing about social media is that it allows us to share some of our most beautiful moments with each other. If social media didn’t exist, I would never have gotten to see this gorgeous sunrise!

I checked the local road situation before packing my bags and heading out the door. I had planned to do some recon work early the day before for some Spring off trail adventures, but access to the area was closed off. Since 441 was still shut down, I decided to head up Sugarland Mtn to see if I could recon from a different angle, plus, I needed to finish the bottom half of the trail anyways.

The climb up was peaceful. I passed 2 hikers a mile or so in, but after that, I had the mountain to myself. Sugarland had a bunch of under brush and low hanging branches along the trail which had me annoyingly brushing off snow from my clothes. It was apparent by the time I got to the Rough Creek turn, that I would get no chance at any sort of visual reconnaissance so I made the decision to go ahead and descend back down the mountain.

The first mile or so along Rough Creek was much like Sugarland, but quickly settled into a fun and runnable trail. The fog paired with the snowy environment was breathtaking.

I carefully rock hopped a few creeks and playfully followed animal tracks along the trail.

I transitioned into a steady tempo run when I hit Little River Trail. Even though this trail was more like a jeep road, I thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful movement next to the rushing water.

To keep the purity of the route, I decided not to take Husky back over to reconnect with Sugarland. Instead, I made my way to Elkmont campground. I made a quick stop to see some of the sites, like the old staircase to the Wonderland Hotel:

The snow was so beautiful that I didn’t even mind the few miles along the road back to the trailhead.

I quickly stripped down, changed into warm, dry clothes and cracked open a colbeer when I got back to my car.

I enjoyed the silence the mountain brought that day. My voice stayed quiet, my mind wasn’t cluttered, and my heart didn’t feel heavy. Sometimes it’s best to stay silent and let the world unfold around you.

I’m thankful to have gotten the chance to get up to the Smokys one more time to play in the snow. Team Andrews has got some big goals this year. Between wrapping up my final semester and internship of grad school, Make-A-Wish Trailblaze Challenge, and my regular job at the thrift store, these types of mountain adventures will be few and far between. The next 5 months will be mental chaos but I’m excited to see what 2021 has in store. If it’s anything like last year, it’ll be another year of hard, hard growth.

I’ve Tasted Blood & It Is Sweet

I don’t race that often. It’s not that I have anything against racing, it’s mostly that I’d rather be roaming the rugged and remote Appalachia under my on accord.

Chimney Tops summit – Great Smoky Mountains

And honestly, racing be aspensive yo!

So I try and limit myself to 1 or 2 bigger races a year. Since Covid shut down the country and the race scene this year, my “A” race for the year was canceled. I feel it was for the best. I’m through chasing HR qualifiers and heading back to Cruel Jewel 100 for a 3rd time just seemed… preposterous and… painful.

Mile 85 ~ CJ100 (2018) ~ not loving lyfe

I got my long distance fix when I linked a 78 mile route on my favorite mountain for my birthday in October, but with the year winding down, I kinda wanted to throw some of my built up stress into something hard (Blood Rock = 50 miles w/ ~ 13,000ft of gain). The last 6 months in particular have been some of the busiest and most stressful of my life. I’m finally seeing the light at the end of the master’s degree tunnel… but that light has felt more like an approaching freight train. Since the counseling program requires a 600hr internship, I had to switch jobs (again) and hop back into the retail world in order to be able to work full time and knock out my internship. I left my physical therapy family…

My girls from Impact Rehab

And joined a new family at Americas Thrift Store.

Management Team – Halloween

Between spending 20hrs at my school internship site counseling students, working 40hrs a week and wrapping up the Make-a-Wish Trailblaze Challenge… running has been one of the few things that’s kept me stable and sane. My typical week for the past semester has been jam packed. “Double Days” is a term Kati and I coined for days where I have to either do internship then work or work then class. A DD on Monday/Tuesday means going to my internship site to counseling 4-5hrs then strolling into work for an 8hr closing shift and a DD on Wednesday/Thursday usually means opening the store and then going to 3hr class or counseling supervision. If I’m lucky enough to score an “off from work” day during the week, I spend a full 8hrs at my internship site. If my “off from work” days land on weekends, I either marked/flagged/lead a Make-a-Wish hike or tried to slide in an adventure of my own. Despite the crazy, hectic schedule, I still managed to keep decent mileage on my legs each week and squeezed in runs when I could.

I felt like I’d had so much stress built up and kinda felt that I hadn’t been able to do anything that I wanted to do. Everything felt like a commitment or requirement out of my control and honestly… I just wanted to lay waste to something that I chose to do… so the Monday before Blood Rock weekend, I signed up for the 50 miler. The 50 miler was the only distance that fit my time frame… I had to be at work at 630am Saturday morning so that took out the 25k, 50k and 100 miler. I figured if I could bang out the 50 miler in a decent time, I’d at least get a few hours of sleep and could coffee my way through a sore and zombiefied morning of work.

Blood Rock 50

The last time I raced a Tosch race was in 2015. I was a big bearded, long haired dude running around the woods in a French Maid’a outfit…

Don’t worry… I left that sexy outfit hanging in the closet for the BR50.

I’d forgotten how enjoyable it was to go to a packet pick up and actually see people you knew. The weather was a wee bit chilly at the start, so I tried to stay in my car until 5-10 minutes before the start.

pic: Suman (Mruns)

I walked up as Tosch was wrapping up the pre-race meeting and took my spot near the front of the pack at the starting line. I stood dwarfed by a tall, athletic looking dude…

pic: Suman (Marathon Runs)

I now know what Kevin Hart feels as he stands next to Dwayne Johnson…

After a 30 second count down, we headed out up the road to begin the race.

pic: Suman (Marathon Runs)

Daddy Long Legs shot out ahead of me and I followed suit. Thankfully, years of ultra experience has taught me patience and to not pursue out of my comfort zone, so it wasn’t hard settling into a rhythm and watching DLL break away.

We came through NTH 1 Aid Station (mile 2) fairly quickly and darted on the single track. I saw my buddy Matt Benefield setting up the aid station and yelled a quick “hey” to him! After a half mile we started the brutal Back Country Trail. The next 5 miles would be a series of up and downs resulting in approximately 2,000ft of techy climbing. I wanted to keep Daddy Long Legs in my eye site so he stayed a climb ahead of me. Climbing up through the fog was enchanting! The fog clutched tight in the trees and swallowed the view as we passed over King’s Chair. I finally caught up to DLLs as we started into the Back Country beyond King’s Chair.

Daddy Long Legs: “Which race are you running?”

Me: “The 50. How about you?

Daddy Long Legs : “The 100. Good! I don’t have to worry about you as competition.”

This immediately rid the atmosphere of any tension and we settled into good conversation as we descended to the bottom dirt road.

Turns out… Daddy Long Legs was not his given name… it was Zack Jordan… and Zack absolutely crushed the 100 miler (1st overall in 23hrs42mins). We ran side by side along the bottom “sunken road” and Zack took point as we started the climb up Topless. To put Zack’s (Daddy Long Legs) stride into perspective… 2-3 of my lil hobbit ass strides compared to one of his American bred quarter horse strides. We both chose to bypass the water only Billy Goat Bridge aid station (mile 7.1) without checking up and rolled together till we got to the NTH 2 aid station (mile 12.5).

We got to NTH 2 at 1:55… coming in a little bit quicker (35mins) than I had originally anticipated. I figured the first 23 miles would be the toughest and I wanted to get as much as I could out of the way while I still had daylight. I was pleasantly surprised to see Matty Fierce at the aid station. For some reason, I had it in my mind that he’d not be there until the last time I’d come through NTH. I quickly refilled my bottle and darted back up the trail.

I was moving swiftly uphill but got a little too aggressive on the descent down Eagles Nest and took a hard fall. Between the slick, leaf covered terrain and grade off the mountain, both feet flew out from under me and I landed square on my back. The fall knocked the breath out of me, but fortunately, it only sent a shock to my system and didn’t do any damage. The jolt pumped enough adrenaline in me to power through the return trip through the Back Country riding a “high.

Mile 22.9 ~ NTH 3

I was still moving smoothly and comfortably by the time I reached the NTH 3 aid station (mile 22.9). My GPS was already showing short (showing 17.5) so I had to transition to paying closer attention to actual time (3:40) rather than mileage. MF was there waiting with a warm Arby’s sandwich, a cold Coke and a new water bottle.

The Cabins aid station (25.7) was practically vacant as I rolled through. I said a quick hello to Tony as I crossed over the timing pad at the start/finish area. I made a comfortable push near the BMX area along Yellow before starting the easy ascent up Orange towards the abandoned Boy Scout Cabins. While running with Matty Fierce the week before, I had imagined I’d be running down Tranquility Camp Road in the dark. Surprisingly, I was well ahead of my expectations and pushed hard down the descent to the Yellow/White connector. I caught a beautiful and fiery sunset climbing up YW and didn’t have to flip on the headlamp until I started the descent down Green.

I saw the all too familiar red glow from the heat lamps in the owl/hawk cages before turning onto Yellow/Green connector. The moment my headlamp came into view of the Terrace Drive aid station (mile 32.8) I heard a lonely “ROAD PRONG!” being yelled from the open field. Of course… I returned MF’s “Road Prong” with a gleeful “Road Prong”’ of my own.

Terrace aid station (mile 32.8)

I rolled into Terrace aid station (mile 32.8) at 5:09. The aid wasn’t entirely set up yet, but the race strategy wasn’t to even utilize aid stations unless completely necessary. I crammed a few more gels into my waist belt, switched out water bottles, monched a lil more of my Arby’s sammich and downed a bit more Coke before heading off into the night.

I was still feeling fresh leaving Terrace so I moved quickly up Johnson’s Mountain. I slowed a bit after veering off the main trail towards the neighborhood, but once I hit the Hamptons I felt like Britany and Tiffany Wilson…

The asphalt was welcomed and made for faster running until I reached the massive climb up the power line. The power line “trail” was steep but was over quickly. I stayed composed and pushed gently up the climb. I didn’t even find in necessary to have a “BF.”

I picked up the pace once I hit Peavine Road and cruised in around 6:00 to Peavine 1 (mile 38) feeling strong!

I kept the pace up as I backtracked the way I came. After leaving the trail and hitting the asphalt again, I crossed paths with the 100 mile leader (which I presumed to be Zack “DLL”) along Peavine Road. I was surprised I didn’t see any headlamps as I made my way back to the turn off near Johnson’s. The lack of headlamps made me push a little bit harder up towards the the infamous “Blood Rock.” I never felt bad throughout the race, but I took a hard step-down descending Green/White connector that jostled my belly a lil bit that resulted in a slight throw up in my mouth…. which was swallowed involuntarily and unexpectedly for some unknown reason. The climb out of Peavine Gorge was peaceful. The sounds of rushing water paired well with the cool night air and it made for a tranquil escape from the steep climb. The Peavine aid station was bustling with crew & volunteers when I came through the second time. I reached Peavine 2 (mile 44.7) at 7:09.

2 of my favs! (Sonia and MF)

I finished the last bit of my Arby’s sammich (yes… the same one I’d been steadily monchin’ on all day), took another swig of Coke and grabbed a new headlamp.

Peavine 2 ~ mile 44.7

Sonia was there cheering runners on and I think I may or may not have been forced to twerk on Matty Fierce before being released from the aid station? I’m sure there’s incriminating video evidence out there somewhere…

Matty Fierce: “No other 50 mile runner has come through Peavine the first time around. It’s just you and your time now.”

I dipped down the back side of the pavilion and descended down to the creek below. I the climb out was fairly steep but I knew the climbing was over when I saw the gorge overlook. I was hoping the route was gonna take runnable Blue Trail from Peavine, but instead, it took the old Grey Trail up past Sugar Shack along the ridge. Since this isn’t a “normal” trail, it was windy and rocky. I never found good rhythm through the section. I reluctantly accepted the slower movement and tried to enjoy the chilled night until the trail dipped back down to the Blue Trail. When my feet hit familiar Blue ground, I dove right back into a smooth rhythm that lead me up and over Shackleford. Passing through Maggie’s Glenn for the final time ignited one final push to the finish.

The 50 mile distance has always alluded me. It’s one of my favorite distances to cover but one that I’ve just not figured out yet. Hell… last year at Lookout Mtn 50 miler I got passed at mile 49 that dropped me out of a podium finish.

Lookout Mountain 50 miler (8:55) – 4th OA

However, Blood Rock was a critical piece to slowly figuring out that 50 mile puzzle. I came across the finish line feeling like I’d just put in a hard 5k effort. I still felt like I had life in my legs, but had expended enough to feel happily depleted and worn.

Blood Rock 50 finish (pic: MF)

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a smoother and better executed race. I felt strong, composed and confident all day and most of the running seamed relatively effortless. I was fortunate enough to cross the line 1st in 8:38, setting a new course record (for the updated course that has been used the last 3yrs).

Good People Brewing (thanks Mike!) – (pic: MF)

I learn a little more each time I cover long distances and maybe one day the “take the next day off from all lyfe activities” lesson will be learned… but for now… the 545am wake up call to be a zombie at work will have to suffice.

I’m extremely thankful to have pieced together a solid race to cap off a weird, weird year! I can’t say enough about the dedication and passion Tosch puts into his races and how selfless and incredible all the volunteers are who make these events so special… yall the real MVPs. And a huuuuuuge THANK YOU to my Champion Crew Chief (Matty Fierce) for following me around in the drizzle and cold all day and into the night. You da best… ROAD PRONG!!

I’m excited to be finally wrapping up my masters degree in May and looking forward to sliding back into a more balanced and less stressful lyfe schedule. Until May… I’ll continue to throw in adventures and training as time permits, but for now, it’s time to recover so that I can get up into the mountains for some wintry adventures.

pic: Ash