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!

The Deep End

Take a second and imagine yourself on a hot summer day. A slight breeze blows through your hair as you set your cold drink down on the table, stroll across the warm concrete and start descending a set of submerged stairs into a nice cool, crystal clear pool. You’re happy and smiling as you slowly wade through the shallow end of the pool. Once you’re done splashing, you exit the pool, pick up that cold refreshing drink and plop back down into the safety of the chaise lounge.

Take another moment to imagine a slightly different scenario. This time, before exiting the pool, you decide to take a little stroll into deeper waters. You start creeping ever so slowly over to the darker colored water. As your lower extremities start to leave the slippery slope, you begin to flutter your feet and swim into the deepest part of the pool. A quick but exhilarating shock flows through your body as your sunburnt shoulders feel the cool water for the first time. The synchronized movement of your feet and arms is allowing you to comfortably stay a float in the center of the deep end. You take a deep breath, close your eyes and submerge your entire body. You gently release small bubbles to help yourself sink further into the depths. You feel a slight rush of excitement or maybe even the softest touch of anxiety as you sink deeper… deeper… deeper. All anxiety and fear disappears when your feet touch the bottom. On the floor below, you find footing and launch yourself back to the surface like a rocket pushing through the earth’s atmosphere. As the sun hits your face, you show your teeth to the sky and casually swim back over to the safety of the shallow end.

Now, take a minute to run through one last scenario. Imagine yourself on the same hot summer day. Same smile. Same cool, crystal clear pool. You again start creeping ever so slowly to the darker colored water of the deep end, but this time when your feet leave the slippery, slanted slope… there’s no foreseeable return to the shallow end. How long do you think you could tread water? 1 minute? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? 30 minutes? Your legs begin to tire and your arms become heavy. Your heart rate spikes and panic sets in. You bob your head above the water and suck nervous air into your lungs before the crude nature of gravity grabs your head and submerges it again. You frantically kick your legs and flail your arms in hopes of getting back to the surface, but you don’t seem to be going anywhere. You’re in limbo. Stuck somewhere between the bottom of the pool and the surface. Your vision starts to flutter… dark… light… dark… light… dark… light… the world around you slowly fading. As your body drifts closer to the bottom of the pool, you gaze one last time up at the sparkling surface before everything fades to black.

pic courtesy of Another Hair Brained Idea

Which of the 3 scenarios speak to you the most? Was it the first scenario where you gently played in the shallow end? Was it the second scenario where you safely and thoughtfully explored the deep end? Or was it the third… where you drowned? I feel like it’s safe to assume you didn’t pick scenario 3.

I feel like this metaphor is a great metaphor for relationships. Relationships are truly the essence of existence. We can find relationships in any and everything: spiritual, animal, nature and human. Going through the masters program for counseling at the University of Montevallo has been incredibly insightful and has allowed my to look more objectively at my own personal relationships.

One of the concepts that has stuck out to me the most is depth within the therapy session. I think this same mentality can be applied to personal relationships as well.

What’s one thing you noticed about my crudely drawn chart? Hopefully you noticed the depiction of how much time is spent at the deepest portion. As you can see, the bulk of the time is NOT spent at the deepest level of the session. Why do you think this is? I believe it’s because growth is tough and can be exhausting. If you consistently stay in the deep end, you’re bound to exhaust yourself and drown. That’s why it’s important to have a healthy balance. This not only applies within the therapeutic relationship, but applies to every day relationships and many other areas of life in general.

First and foremost, you should be applauded for simply getting into the water. Many people will spend their whole lives afraid of any sort of relationship or conflict. Sitting on the edge of the pool watching everyone play in the water is extremely safe, but by doing so, you miss out on lots of meaningful moments in life. Much like the first scenario, lots of people will keep things in the shallow end where it’s nice and safe. Perhaps you can view “shallow end” friends as acquaintances, co-workers or school friends. “Shallow” is not used here as a negative term, but instead, a metaphor. Where most of the relationship is spent lighthearted and just above the surface, instances remain where you can still completely submerge yourself and get deep within these relationships. The shallow end simply provides a stationary boundary for the depth that can be reached.

The second scenario speaks to those deeper, more intimate connections in your life. Perhaps this grouping would include your closest friends, life partner or even your own self. Where most of the relationship is spent somewhere between the surface and middle, there is a need and desire to dive deep every now and again. However, before diving in headfirst and cultivating depth, there needs to be a mutual understanding and healthy respect for one another. In therapy, this is where building good rapport with a client is absolutely crucial for the therapeutic process to be successful. Presenting yourself in an authentic and genuine way is one way to build the trust needed to deep dive in any relationship.

Another great way to build trust and depth in a relationship is self disclosure. Self disclosure can play a crucial role in bonding, however, I feel that it’s vital to understand that just because you disclose an intimate or personal life moment with a friend, doesn’t mean you should expect them to do the same. Everyone is on their own journey and it’s important to respect that individual’s journey and boundaries. Healthy and balanced relationships are built on communications, not ultimatums and control. I think sometimes people get the wrong impression of boundaries. Boundaries are often set not to hurt or offend anyone, but as an attempt to continue the relationship in a healthier, more self-preserving way.

Meaningful experiences aren’t something that can be forced. When you set out intentionally to have a meaningful experience, oftentimes it turns into the opposite. I’m not saying that forced meaningful experiences isn’t in the realm of possibility, I simply believe that meaningful experiences mostly occur naturally. I can think of numerous experiences in my own life where the latter has happened. One moment that comes to mind was when I decided to run the 71 miles of Appalachian Trail that crosses the Smoky Mountains for my 31sts birthday. My intentions for the run were simply to cover the distance safely and do it under 24hrs, but somewhere along the way the adventure started to become meaningful. As I climbed up the ridge through the early morning light, my favorite forest was illuminated in a magical way.

Appalachian Trail near Mollies Ridge shelter

As I pushed further, the hoarfrost near one of my favorite peaks (Rocky Top) clung to the trees in a way that made it feel like I was in an enchanted fairy land.

Appalachian Trail near Rocky Top

But the moment when this adventure really became meaningful to me was around 2am somewhere between Mount Sequoyah and Mount Guyot. After a 40 mile solo stretch, I had picked up my buddies for the final 30 miles. We had been chatty throughout the night, but there were sections of comfortable silence. I’ve found there’s a certain beauty in the way a group can silently move through the mountains together. Though the temps were in the low 20s and the wind gusts were +25mph, the sky was clear and the moon was full. We popped out to an exposed section of the ridge and the entire valley below was illuminated in the soft moonlight glow. It was in this instant, that the reality of moment set in. Here I was in my favorite place on earth with some of my favorite people doing one of my favorite things. No words needed to be exchanged for me or them to understand our relationship and how appreciative I was to have them there with me.

post SCAR breakfast

Another running moment that comes to mind was last summer. I can’t count the number of times I have run up and down Mount LeConte. It’s safe to say that Mount LeConte is probably my favorite mountain. For whatever reason, when I’m on that mountain I feel like I’m part of something mystical and ancient.

Like most Mountain Girl Weekend trips, we would make at least one trip up LeConte. The trip up varies slightly each time, but in a way, LeConte was a staple and welcomed routine part of MAW. On this summer trip, when me and Ash set out for the summit via Alum Cave, the weather was grim. We spent most of the ascent wondering through the classic drizzly Smoky Mtn fog…

Ash on Alum Cave

However, when we crossed over the summit, the weather started to give and we got to experience a beauty at Myrtle Point that was unmatched by any other trip.

Myrtle Point

I’ve been moved by mountains before, but was almost in tears at the sheer beauty of this awesome creation.

Myrtle Point

As we bounded down the Boulevard, the color of the flowers were radiant, the sky started to clear and the sun was out in full force by the time we arrived to the trailhead. It’s still one of the most meaningful mountain days of my life.

Descending Boulevard

I encourage everyone to take a little deeper look at yourself and your own relationships. Every single relationship looks and feels different. There’s not a right or wrong answer to the construct. Be open, be mindful and protect yourself in these relationships. Don’t be afraid to get in the pool. Have fun! Splash around a bit in the shallow end. Venture out into the deep end but be mindful of how much time you spend below the surface. Remember that we all need air to survive. Someone famous and noteworthy once said, “It is not length of life, but depth of life.” We’re promised nothing more than the breath we’re currently breathing, so with your breath, make sure your living your fullest and most enriching life.