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.

In Bloom

“A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.”

The plan after wrapping up the final Make a Wish event in June was to get back into shape, but I felt lost as far as what “in shape” looked like to me. “In shape” used to look like being able to go out and run a 30-50 mile outing at the drop of the hat, but my heart still wasn’t longing for those types of distances. I continued to feel guilty for not wanting to cover long distances.

Our final Make a Wish hike event (Trailblaze 2.0) for 2022 was in South Carolina. My primary job function at 2.0 was napping…

Kidding kidding… it was volunteering and making sure hikers had a splendid time along their 28 mile journey.

After all the songs had been sung and all the drinks had been drank… it was time to head back to Bama. The BFD crew I rode up to SC with was staying an extra day so I had to score a ride back with someone else.

It’s been said, “one good conversation can shift the direction of change forever…”

Janey was kind enough to let me bum a 5-6hr ride back to Alabama, but more so, was kind enough to share some of her own struggles and how she persevered. She helped me simplify my problem into smaller, manageable goals. It’s funny because in my therapeutic practice… I do this daily for other people… but alas… it’s often tough to make changes and manage our own issues independently.

Like Janey and I discussed… I started small. I started running a few miles 3 days a week and started getting in the gym 2 days a week. And ya know what? It sucked. It sucked real, real bad. I felt like a SLOB. But I knew consistency would be the key and I desperately needed a short term goal to keep me on track… so I signed up for a trail 5k our company sponsored.

I also joined Ellison Fitness Innovations because I felt weak, frail and out of shape. I missed being an all-around athlete and this lil adorable trainer was determined to get me back into shape.

Over the course of the last 3 months… I’ve fallen back in love with being an athlete… not just a runner. I’m finally in a rhythm and have found a new routine! I’m in the gym by 5am 4 days a week and participate in a men’s workout group (F3) 1x a week. I’ve gained some weight (sitting at 145-150lbs compared to the usual 125-133lbs) and feel healthier than I’ve felt in years.

I’m still running 20-30 miles a week and it’s feels like the perfect amount. Despite a favorable outcome of a struggle bus effort at the local trail 5k… my speed is no where near where it was last year…

But that’s alright. The important thang thang is… I’m excited about this new transition into a more well-rounded type of fitness.

Now that my groin issue has dissipated… I’ve finally got a few adventures planned, some quality mountain time, a few shorter trail races… and perhaps a trip out West in the spring.

Wrapping up the end of a long short week at the office… I’ve been reminded how small talks can be impactful and lead to big changes.

“Unfiltered, Unsupported, Unfinished”

A $20 a night campground brings a certain level of charm… like people loudly coming and going at all hours of the night… a random 5am guitar serenade in 29° weather and conversations with a Harley driving New Yorker in the community showers… (for the record… Ed from NY is a good dude).

Per usual, Matty Fierce and I made the long 5.5hrs drive up from Birmingham to what has grown to be one of our favorite campgrounds in the Smokies. We arrived right before midnight. MF popped the rooftop tent while I sat in the backseat packing my bag.

We were only gonna have 2-3hrs of sleep and I sure as hell didn’t wanna be groggy tryna pack my bag in the morning. It was a good call. We were woke by a car pulling into their camp site at 2:55am. I guess they decided to kick it in their warm car instead of crawling into their iced over tent. Can’t blame them but it was weird enough that they pulled in at 3am… even weirder they just kept the lights on as we crawled down from our tent.

It was bitter outside. I slept cozily. MF stayed cold the first night but after a fuzzy pants purchase at the Dollar General… he also reached a level of hibernation coziness the 2nd night.

MF had sent a last minute SOS on one of the Smoky hikers pages as a last ditch effort for a shuttle. By the Grace of God, a guy named Chris responded and agreed to meet us at 4am. This dude drove 2hrs from West Knox and was waiting at the trailhead when we arrived at 330am. I know what you’re thinking… but percentages man, percentages. The percentages of some random guy publicly answering on the internets then driving 2hrs to an obscure location in the middle of the woods with no cell service at an ungodly hour of the morning to pick up 2 guys just to kill them… well… the chances are low… never zero… but very low.

Thankfully me and MF didn’t have to whip out our cool ninja skills. As you can see from his halo in the picture below, Chris turned out to be a very sweet trail angel.

We all chatted until we reached Rainbow Falls trailhead. Since Chris didn’t accept any $ for the shuttle, MF was thoughtful enough to bring him a new Alabama Outdoors hat.

The start was brisk, but we stayed warm moving under the full moon. Though my legs felt fresh, I was moving ssssslllllooooooowwwwww. Relatively, I’m out of shape. Im still in “let’s go to the mountains and run all day” shape but I’m definitely out of “let’s throw down some hard, fast, racey type miles” shape. When we topped out on Trillium… I had already climbed more than I have in the past 6 weeks combined.

I’ve not had much motivation since the Arkansas Traveller 100 . At first the lack of motivation bummed me out, but I quickly accepted it and let it run its course… which it’s still running. My buddy Ryne Anderson made a post the other day about lacking in motivation in his own running as well as seeing it in some of the athletes he coaches. It’s always good to have some reassurance that other athletes you highly respect go through the same type of issues. In one of our chats he said, “It’s tough. But both of us have been pretty consistent for several years. So probably healthy to hit a lull in motivation for some balance.” That statement really resonated with me. Sometimes I feel like I always have to be “on” my game… but as we know… there are exceptions to those always and never statements and it truly is ok to simply exist in certain areas and pursue other avenues for a while.

The tiredness in my legs disappeared once we hit the glow on Myrtle.

“Watching the sunrise at Myrtle Point through morning dew…”

What a majestic time of day to be on my favorite mountain with one of my favorite humans.

To beat the chill, we didn’t stay long and continued down the Boulevard…

MF quickly dropped me after the scar and waited at the top of one of the climbs.

“You ok?”

I think he thought I must have been injured or hurting since I was moving so slowly. Unfortunately, I had no good excuse. Nothing was wrong… I was just moving slow.

I ate a Snickers at Newfound Gap (mile 20ish) and felt better for a few minutes.

Since we only had one car, we had to be creative in how we got to the next trailhead… so we ran like idiots for +4 miles down the busy, winding, horn blowing, tunnel filled roads of 441. The only win about this section was that I FINALLY got to meet one of my favorite Smokies IG accounts, Kristi Parsons! Per usual, she was out making the Smokies a better place picking up trash with Save Our Smokies!

We arrived at the Alum trailhead after 25 or so miles. Since the weather was chilly, we’d each only packed 2 flasks with intentions of filtering water from Alum Cave Creek. Of course our filters were frozen. I was getting water regardless…

“F*ck it. I’m drinking from the source and taking my chances with Giardia.”

*** Spoiler: I didn’t get Beaver Fever ***

By this point, MF was feeling the mountain miles as well.

The trip up Alum was our slowest to date, but there’s something to be said about moving slow up Alum. That trail is still one of the best bang for your buck trails in the entire park. It’s beautiful from start to finish and it was nice taking in some of the smaller details you tend to miss when scampering upwards quickly.

Ahhhh…. the magical turn to the top…

We stopped by the lodge for some small talk and to get purified water. This was the last weekend of the season for the Lodge and store to be open so the grounds were bustling. Of course… I needed to swing by and take a #6593 pic.

We kicked it up on Cliff Tops for a bit before leaving the top.

We decided a warm shower, a cold beer and a hot meal were reasons enough to bail on Rainbow~Bullhead loop. The fact of the matter was that we were moving slow and it was getting to that “this isn’t fun anymore” stage so we slowly made our way down Brushy Mtn to our car at Porters Creek.

We didn’t finish the Tour we set out to do but still ended our day with 38 miles / 8,000ft of climbing and some much needed time on my mountain.

Now that I’ve let my body fully recover and have had ample relaxation time since Arkansas Traveller 100… I suppose it’s time to get back to the grindstone. I was giving myself till after Thanksgiving… so I suppose I’ll cozy up for one more day before settling into a Winter training routine and setting my eye on a Spring goal.

Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Does the “A” in Arkansas stand for Apathetic or Achievement?

“You know what we were doing last night at 7pm? Walking down a dark road at mile 57 with lightning flashing above us.”

I wanted to quit. I was standing ankle deep in a mud puddle in a downpour mile 25. I wasn’t injured. I wasn’t tired. I was just… uninspired.

When I signed up for the Arkansas Traveller 100 mile race I was stoked. My life schedule had simplified and I had months to train and prepare. I had high hopes. I had never trained with intent for a 100 miler before and was looking forward to doing so, but somewhere along the way… I lost interest. I just didn’t feel like pushing and training in that way. I was solid for a bit in the beginning of the training block… but eventually I fell off and started to redirect my focus onto work and music. The 5 or so weeks leading up to the race were subpar at best and felt like I was just doing enough to get by. Meh… these kinda cycles happen and sometimes ya just need to roll with them. Nevertheless, I figured things would change when we got to Arkansas.

I drove up to OJG’s house Friday morning and we made our way towards the great state of Arkansas. We didn’t want to feel rushed so we left out early and took our time on the trip.

We scooted into the start/finish area a little after 4pm to grab our hoodies and drop off our drop bags. This was a solo mission (no crew or pacers) so we were reliant on them.

After discovering the closest town to the starting line was dry… we hunted down Octoberfest and pizza at the Red Moon Tavern.

The race provided free camping in the group camping site about a mile or so down from the race so we took advantage of the proximity. Since it was set to rain all night, we canceled the tent plan and threw our sleeping pads in the back of OJG’s 4Runner, popped the hatch and drifted into slumber.

We awoke around 4:30am and eased our way up to the starting line. When we got to race headquarters, we grabbed our psych ward looking wrist band, our bibs and a cup of coffee. We sat outside listening to the excitement of all the runners… but I just couldn’t shake the feeling of emptiness and apathy I felt. I honestly thought that spark of excitement would ignite as it got closer to race time but it just didn’t happen.

At 6am, the gun blasted and we headed off into the morning darkness. I slid into an easy rhythm about 10 folks deep and just coasted through the first couple of aid stations. Physically, I was moving fine… legs felt good… body felt good… movement felt easy… but emotionally… I was hollow.

After the the Electronic Tower aid station (mile 24.6), a heavy rain storm set in. I found myself just apathetically walking through the ankle deep puddles. I just wasn’t having any fun. At one point… I kinda just stopped and stood in the rain for a bit. I had all but made up my mind to drop at mile 31 and crew OJG for the rest of the race when the Legend himself came splashing down the trail.

“What ya doing?”

I started slogging through the puddles with him.

Listen, I’m gonna drop at mile 31 and just crew you the rest of the race. My heart just ain’t in this dude.”

OJG simply said, “Nah. Just run with me till mile 50.”

He knew as well as I did that if I got to mile 50 and started the back half I’d have to finish.

At times we held conversation and at other times we were silent. Having a running partner that you can just simply be present with in any aspect is priceless. It all felt organic… no forced conversation… no bullshit pep talks… just 2 souls knowing what needed to happen to get it done. I’m real real thankful for OJG and he’s 100% the reason I finished.

We flipped on our headlamps as we approached the Turnaround (mile 57). OJG opted for a Desitin foot bath and I sat and watched the spectacle as I ate a mashed potato and bacon burrito (it was litrully one of the finest foods I’ve ever consumed at an aid station).

We left out of the Turnaround with lightning flashing above our heads. We figured it was gonna rain again at some point but hoped it would be a mild drizzle and not a storm.

Because of the amount and proximity of the aid stations, the race can easily be covered with just a handheld and a small waist pack. That was both our initial go-to’s for the first 68 miles but we both decided to slide on our vests for the overnight. We didn’t have a crew or anything and didn’t want to chance not having a backup headlamp or comfort items throughout the night.

The night miles were steamy. Typically, you’ll get a lil chilly on the overnight portion of almost any 100 miler… but I stayed drenched pretty much all day. Thankfully I stayed on top of lubing and didn’t experience any chafing. I couldn’t bare the thought of a repeat of the horrendous chafing of 2018 Cruel Jewel 100!

The most exciting part of the overnight was the amount of SNAKES we saw. We saw a shit ton of baby copperheads, a full grown copperhead and one pesky rat snake that coiled at OJG. I bet I saw more snakes in the overnight portion than I have all summer here in Alabama.

The sleepiness had set in by the time we got to Lake Winona (mile 85). We could’ve easily taken a quick nap in the chair but opted to down a Red Bull and start walking into the darkness.

The last 15 miles were slow. My right achilles had gone to shit and I was having to do this weird shuffle thing to keep up with OJG’s power walk. By the time the sun came up, we were both ready to be done with the race.

The last 2 miles were a long downhill on a gravel road. With the exception of about 8 miles of rolling single track… the race was comprised of either forest service roads with gravel or rutted ATV type forest service roads. The race course itself won’t go down as a favorite, but the aid stations, volunteers and overall experience is top notch and professional.

Once we hit the main pavement, we had a short climb up a hill to Camp Ouchita. Since we were in no rush… we stopped by the car, dropped our vests and picked up our flip flops before crossing the finish line at the 26hr30min mark.

After a quick and unsuccessful 30min nap at a Walmart parking lot…

We carried on to our boujee spot in Memphis.

The Peabody is probably the fanciest place I’ve ever stayed! I felt a lil out of place in shorts and flips flop, covered in mud, limping through the lobby of a fancy smancy hotel… but… I felt super comfortable fine dining in the room in a cozy robe…

You learn something new every time you cover this type of distance. My biggest take away from this past weekend is more of a reminder than anything… a reminder that sometimes hard things can and should be done even when your heart isn’t into it.

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.”

It Ain’t That Deep

It’s been a minute since I’ve been up to the Smokies… and by minute… I mean it’s just been since May. Typically I try and get up there once a month, but I’ve found myself dialing back my visits lately. Perhaps it’s settling into a new job… or maybe it’s that I’ve been shittily training for a race that’s not so mountainous… or maybe it’s just that life is better than it’s ever been and I’m not needing that escape. Who knows really, but at the moment, I’m content with my visits to my favorite place.

Life is a little more demanding lately so it’s harder to jet out early on a Friday and sneak up to the Smokies for a Friday evening/night, but I almost feel as though it’s less stressful not rushing to get up to the mountains. Lately, most of my trips up have seemed less stressed and less forced.

We woke up as the sun came up (no alarms or early sunrise departure), grabbed some coffee and breakfast in Bryson City, and made our way over to Deep Creek where were going to camp for the night. Luckily, we were able to switch camping tags so that we could go ahead and set up camp before our run.

Smoky Mtn running is a ton of fun with Matty Fierce. He’s not so locked into the highlight trails and h honestly helps get me out to see different areas of the park. We set out of the campsite and made our way to the beginning of Deep Creek Trail.

It was easy crushed gravel running parallel to the creek for the first little bit, passing a few waterfalls and some early morning hikers. Eventually the trail would narrow and we found ourselves in that good ole deep green and log bridges of the Appalachia.

Deep Creek had some evidence of some flash flooding and wash out and required us to use some of our trail ninja skills to navigate a few areas.

About 8 miles in, we were moving along a thick, grassy, exposed area when Matty Fierce yelled and quickly and backtracked down the trail. My initial instinct was “bear.” Instead… it was a beautiful rattler curled up right beside the trail. Man… the camouflage was gorgeous. Not that ya ever wanna get tagged by a rattler… but ya definitely don’t wanna get tagged by a rattler 8 miles into the backcountry with no service… that could quickly turn into a life and death situation.

We took our time, found some longer sticks and gently persuaded the snaky snake to slither on its merry way into the thicket.

After the snake, I took the lead for a bit while we continued along Deep Creek. This section of the trail and park was insanely beautiful.

We eventually got out of the low lands and started climbing upwards. At about the 14-15 mile mark, we popped out on 441.

We had a little over a mile of road running to connect to the next trail. I’ve grown fond of connecting long efforts via roadways and keeping things pure in the Smokies. 441 provided the only views we got all day along the trail. The views you get on these types of routes are less focused on the horizons and more focused on the deep beauty of the forest.

We took a lil snack break at the Thomas Divide TH.

About 2 miles into Thomas Divide, MF wasn’t feeling the heat and humidity, so he decided to drop the 3 miles down Kanati Trail and thumb a ride down into Cherokee. For a second I thought about joining, but truly needed some longer miles on my legs. From MF’s report… Im kinda glad I didn’t take Kanati and not sure I’m looking forward to having to cover it at some point for the map’s sake.

Thomas Divide was a bit overgrown on the ridge.. see the trail? Yea… same.

The trail dialed back the growth a bit once I started descending and turned into some good old fashioned single track. The last few miles of the 30 mile effort was a double wide trail followed by a beautiful forest service road.

The park rangers were setting a big steel bear trap about 50 yards from our tent site. Apparently some kids left some food out the night before and a bear came through a ravaged some of the area. I took a quick dip in the river to wash off the mountain mucky muck, hung up my clothes and set off to rescue MF from the perils of being stranded at a brewery. MF got cleaned up in the back seat and we made our way back to Bryson City for some colbeer, pizza and live music.

The next morning we set out for a trailhead in the same general area. Typically day 2 of these adventures would bring a summit of 6593, but it was nice changing things up a bit. I’ll get back to my mountain this Fall.

We tried our best to get to this trailhead… but after a few wrong turns and pull ins to… how do I say this kindly… some sketch ass looking properties… we took our L (mainly for safety reasons) and headed to Wesser.

It was a bit rainy as we started up the AT for the familiar out and back… but the moody weather made for some beautiful scenery!

We were socked in at the Jump Ups…

But we were hoping the clouds would burn off by the time we reached the fire tower. Things were bleak up top for a few minutes…

But the clouds began to part and we had an absolutely beautiful trip down.

It was nice getting down to the bottom and not feeling rushed to leave immediately. We soaked in the icy cold Nantahala, basked in the gorge’s sunshine and sipped on a few local colbeers.

Life is good. I’m finding myself beyond blessed for the people in my life and the opportunity to cover ground on this incredible planet.

Time to focus in on some long, droned efforts for the next month and then hopefully can get back to planning something fabulously rugged and Appalactic for the Fall.

You Can Always Find Me Where The Skies Are Blue

A certain intimacy lies in grand adventures and travel. There’s just something that bonds people when seeing beautiful places or doing hard shit together.

Perhaps it’s the collective feeling of awe and amazement when staring out into the High Country in Colorado from 14,000ft.

Kyle ~ 2016 on El Diente

Or that feeling of smallness when gazing upon something as majestic as the Tetons…

Wifey ~ Jenny Lake , WY

Or that feeling of a cold beer and pizza after spending 5 days camping in the Wyoming backcountry…

Angle Mtn, Wyoming

Or a quick weekend trip up to Appalachia to break up the monotony of every day life…

Da bois ~ Nantahala , NC

Whatever it may be… I feel like you instinctively grow closer with people in which you spend this type of intentional time.

Trail running has blessed me beyond belief. Over the course of the past 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to be an ambassador and sponsored by several amazing companies. From travel to gear, I’ve received much more than I feel like I deserve. No matter how much hard work you put in and how much passion you have for something, the cold hard truth is… you don’t always get to reap the benefits and rewards.

About 6 years ago, I remember coming to the realization of like, “damn, this is pretty amazing. I wish I could somehow give back and connect people to the outdoors.”

So I started opening up heart and mind to that idea. I started putting those intentions into the universe through thought, prayer and moving meditation. I feel like it’s one thing to put intentions out there, however, if you’re not actively observing and paying attention, you may miss something the universe is trying to show you.

A few weeks passed and I received a random email from a women I’d never met before. She explained that she was going to start a new program in Alabama based around a program in North Carolina that she recently went and observed and volunteered. We agreed to meet up for drinks to discuss the event in a but more detail. I think I was halfway through my first beer when I was like… “Yea… I’m in.”

That random ass woman… well her name is Valerie.

And we’ve been bringing sexy back to the trails and training Make a Wish hikers since 2017.

This past weekend I got the opportunity to spend time with Val and 2 other high quality humans that I’ve known for years but haven’t really got to spend much intentional time.

I got into Denver just in time to drop my bags at the hotel and catch a super late dinner with Val, Beebs and Trevor. The next thing I knew… it was 2:30am and we were headed off to Colorado’s Trailblaze Challenge event.

When we got to the trailhead, I strapped on a headlamp, grabbed a handheld and set off into the dark abyss to scope out the 23.8 miles of the Colorado Trail that CO MAW utilizes for their hike.

The trail was gorgeous. I moved along the well groomed western single track as I watched the morning sun illuminate the sky.

I passed through where aid station one was to eventually be set up and began through an exposed section of trail. The sun finally popped it’s head over the ridge line to allow sight in the beautiful valley.

I passed through mile 10 aid station and said hello to the CO volunteers. Since the air was cool, I didn’t need anything other than a squirt of water to top of my handheld. The trail continued as a forest service road for a bit until it turned back into the groomed single track. The BIGGEST difference between the CO and AL route is that AL route on the Pinhoti is waaaaaaaaaay more technical.

I eventually linked up with my MAW crew at mile 23. They had just finished setting up Wish Mile and we all 4 hiked back to the finish together. We made a quick pit stop in Bailey, CO to grab some food. OMG… Bailey is the cutest town. The shops were cute but the town folk were cuter. AND… it had a Sasquatch Museum!

After some hot dogs, we headed back to a few of the aid stations to volunteer with the Colorado chapter. Typically on hike weekends in Alabama, I’m preoccupied with taking care of hikers on the trail by either sweeping, scouting, or spot checking. It was nice to not have that obligation and to be able to work an aid station and chat with the CO volunteers and their hikers! I even met a hiker in CO that was from Athens, AL!

You don’t really get the understanding and scope of how bad ass your own program is until you witness another. AL’s Trailblaze is so much bigger in terms of participant and volunteer size… and honestly… I think it has everything to do with the passion and hard work the AL team brings to the table. Though it takes a village to find this type of success, these 2 women right here are 2 of the most inspiringly hardworking individuals I’ve ever met.

Val & Beebs

They care a hell of a whole lot and it shows in the success the AL Trailblaze chapter has seen. The AL Trailblaze Challenge almost raised $1,000,000 last year… yes… Dr. Evil… close to a million.

It’s been fascinating and inspiring to watch this grass roots event turn into a magnificent production that’s impacting so many lives.

The one thing I love about these small group trips is the lack of conflict when it comes to deciding what to do next. Y’all wanna grab a drink and go cool off in the cold ass river? “Im down.”

bros in boxers drinking beers

Y’all hungry? “Let’s stop and eat at the next place we come to…”

Y’all wanna wake up super early again and hike a 14er? “In.”

Sunday morning, we’d decided to yet again wake up at an ungodly hour and make our way to a trailhead before the sun.

We collectively marched through the darkness with our sights set on Mt Bierstadt. As we trudged through the darkness, the sky was slowly lightening.

I don’t suppose watching the sun come up from a mountain will ever get old…

We eventually made our way to the tippy top and enjoyed a few minutes taking in the beautiful sights from Bierstadt!

I love the fact that the people that push and expect hard effort from the hikers of Trailblaze don’t just talk the talk… but litrully walk the walk.

They say “you’re known by the company you keep” and the older I get… the more thankful I am for keeping good company.

✌🏼 out Colorado. Hope to see your blue skies again soon.

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!

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.

Dragonborn

The older I get, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the authentic. Authentic friendships. Authentic experiences. Authentic love. The modern world has us chasing instant gratification and it seems like a new trend comes and goes every single day. Some people and events can mask themselves in authenticity, but if you stare long enough, you can see through the makeup and nails to reveal the gimmicks.

I remember standing outside of Camp Morganton in 2013 when a slender man with a bull horn drew a line in the gravel with his foot.

CJ – the beginning

I was an abecedarian in the world of mountain ultra running, but instantly knew there was something genuine about Cruel Jewel. It was raw. It was real. You couldn’t “fake it till you make it” your way through this race.

Originally, CJ56 started at 4pm and was essentially a night ultra. I lined up with 16 other adventurers and set off for Vogel. After 15hrs20mins, I arrived to the park first, but there was no finish line. The finish was a cabin with a few folks hanging out. For my first ultra win, I got a fist bump and a cold beer. Authentic to its core.

CJ 56 – 2013

Since 2013, I’ve gone back to the beautiful North Georgia mountains to experience the Dragon several times. Before changing directions, I had my eye on Hardrock and fought my way through 2 Cruel Jewel 106 mile finishes (2016 & 2018) to snag qualifiers. Cruel Jewel holds a special place in my heart and my skin…

But let me be authentic with you guys… I’m sure as shit glad that Covid canceled the 2020 attempt. I was not looking forward to battling the Dragon again. The 106 mile journey is such a massive undertaking and a labor of love. It not only takes a special kind of personal grit, but it also takes a special type of human to sacrifice their own time and well being to crew/pace. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, crewing/pacing a 100 miles is harder than running a 100 miles. I’ll forever be blown away by those who support these types of endurance endeavors.

Due to the 2020 covid cancellation, runners were given the option to defer to the following year or get a credit for Dumass events. Since grad school hadn’t really offered the free time to properly train for a 100 miler, I chose to drop down to the 56 miler to give myself a lil more grace with my weekly mileage. My approach to ultra running training during grad school looked completely different than pre-grad school, but I think the approach has been effective. Ive felt happier and healthier with lower mileage paired with more quality workouts/runs. Plus, a lot of my longer efforts have been solo and I believe that’s played into the overall mental well being of my running.

Speaking of grad school…. I’M FINISHED!! I graduated on May 8th! It still doesn’t feel real! Perhaps it doesn’t feel real since I opted for a shorty shorts Mount LeConte graduation instead of the typical walk across stage in a black robe type of graduation.

Professor Fierce doing the honors

Heading back to North Georgia for the 2021 CJ56 felt like freedom in so many different ways. I didn’t have school work or internship looming in the back of my mind,… I wasn’t searching for a job since I had recently secured a therapist position at a private nonprofit… I was free to enjoy the N Ga mountains with no bonds or ties.

Since we (the Road Prong Boyz) already had a big mountain adventure planned for June, the usual suspects couldn’t make it out to CJ to crew. I had originally planned to just snag a campsite and shuttle/drop bag my way through the race, but Kati said we could make a weekend out of it and she’d crew me. My wife Kati has always been one of the biggest supporters of my endurance endeavors, but after I botched a few experiences for her… I gave her a life long pass of not having to come out to anymore events. I got super stoked when she suggested coming along with me since we’ve not gotten to spend a lot of time together due to grad school and such. So we said goodbye to our cats and headed to Blue Ridge.

Wobbles the 3 Legged Phenom

We snagged a cute little AirBnB about 10mins from Camp Morganton called “The Happy Place.” It was quiet and allowed easy access to all the crew accessible aid stations for the race!

After dinner in Blue Ridge, we called it an early night.

Oh damn, it’s kinda cold!”

Race morning weather couldn’t have been any better. 42° and gorgeous.

After a quick sexy photo shoot showing off the 3 day old Salomon S/SLAB SG 8’s...

An adventure cat wished me luck…

And we headed out of Morganton!

We had a small, chatty group as we made our way down the asphalt of Snake Nation and up the big hill towards Deep Creek trail head. The road had been my friend for the past several months so I felt comfortable moving quickly along the blacktop. I didn’t have much of a strategy for the day and had no real plans of competing with anyone other than myself. I wanted this race to be more of a celebratory run than a competition. My personal plan was to go out quick and stay consistent until I reached Skeenah, where I’d inevitably slow down to cater to the Dragon.

I pushed through Deep Gap aid (mile 2.7) without checking up. It had been years since I’d run this loop in the daylight and enjoyed the easy movement. Ya tend to forget how pleasant a section can be when you have +50 miles on your legs already.

I passed my girl Sunny on the backside of the loop. She was back for revenge. Sunny and her pacer Stan were pushing through the first morning. I stopped for a quick hug before carrying on to the aid station. The mental fortitude and persistence that resides in Sunny is something out of this world. I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of her finish.

I got back to Deep Gap aid (mile 8.5) and quickly had a volunteer verify my bib punch before heading towards Weaver.

Oh Weaver… how thou sucketh so badeth.

This pointless out and back is why you are running 56 miles and not 50 miles.”

Yea… that sign sucks… but it sucks even worsewhen you change the numbers to 106 and 100. Dropping down to Weaver isn’t so bad when it’s mile 10 and not 60. I passed 2 other BHM lads (Don and Robby) pursuing their CJ buckles.

Congrats my dudes!

I found myself enjoying the climb out of Weaver. I wasn’t falling asleep to the sunrise with Matty Fierce like I was in 2018…

CJ100 ~ 2018

I wasn’t deliriously wondering if some old man with a rifle was gonna shoot me and OJG like in 2016… (thassa true story tho…)

CJ100 ~ 2016

I was just climbing and enjoying the morning when I came upon another Birmingham bad ass tackling the 106 miler. As always, Missy looked fresh and was moving well!

Once I topped the climb out of Weaver, it was easy running down to Stanley (mile 18.9).

pic: Tony F (thx dude!)

The guys weren’t too far behind me so I decided to kick a lil on the asphalt to try and bank some extra time for the Dragon. I got into a steady groove and was well ahead of my anticipated arrival (by ~ 45mins) for Old Dial. I was a bit worried I’d miss Kati at Old Dial aid (mile 24.8) and told the volunteers to be on the lookout for a cute girl in a black death metal t shirt. Luckily, Kati had litrully just parked when I was leaving the aid tent.

I took a quick sip of Coke and tried to monch a Clif Bar, but solid foods weren’t the ticket for the day.

I quickly headed out of Old Dial and up towards the fire tower. Even though it’s been since 2018 that I’ve been on this particular portion of trail, everything felt familiar. I allowed myself to revisit some old memories and conversations as I pushed up towards the fire tower, but quickly snapped out of it when they started turning negative. I rolled into Wilscot aid (mile 30.3) a little overheated. Though not as hot as previous years, this was still one of my first exposures to warmer weather this year. Hell, it was 30° with snow flurries during last weekend’s 25 mile adventure in the Smokies w/ Matty Fierce!

I was starting to feel a bit dehydrated and knew I wasn’t taking in enough liquids. I grabbed a 2nd handheld from Kati before leaving Wilscot. As you can see from the above chipmunk cheek picture, the bacon at Wilscot was top notch.

Wilscot to Skeenah was pretty uneventful. I kept pushing as hard as my body would comfortably allow through some of the more runnable sections. Every time I felt overheated, I’d douse myself with a little water and catch a cooler wind through the trees.

Skeenah (mile 35.2) was a welcomed sight. Skeenah marks the beginning of the end. The Duncan Ridge Trail is a relentless beat down when you’ve got a pair of fresh legs… but the Dragon Spine is just down right fierce when you’ve already got many tough mountain miles under your feet.

I was curious of how I’d feel about the DRT when I only had to cover its ground once. As always, the climb out of Skeenah along the BMT was long and hot! As I turned onto the DRT, I gave myself a little pep talk.

Alright Andrews, 20 miles. Stay steady. Pick up your feet. Stay consistent.”

Typically when I run long alone… I’ll get a song stuck in my head and it’ll become my mantra. I’ll tie myself into the song’s cadence or deep dive into the lyrics to take my mind off the present. At Blood Rock 50 it was MGK’s “Kiss, Kiss” that played on repeat in my dome piece. At CJ56, it was Taking Back Sunday’s Timberwolves at New Jersey.

Get up, get up
Come on, come on, let's go
There's just a few things
I think that you should know
Those words at best
Were worse than teenage poetry

Very fitting…

As I started rounding into Fish Gap aid (mile 40), I saw Ryan James well into the late miles heading to another 100 mile finish. Dudes been crushing lately.

It was good catching up with RJ for a bit. I hadn’t seen him since he made the move to Black Mountain from Birmingham. We came into the aid together where the wonderful Baker family was volunteering.

“Ya just need to make it to Fire Pit and you’re done.”

Ryan was right. If I could just drop down to Mulky and fight my way to Fire Pit, I’d be sitting pretty for a solid push to the finish.

After Mulky, a fleeting memory of the Lesbian Mountain Dew adventure flashed in my mind as I passed a certain area along the trail. Years ago… out of water with no access along the DRT, a friend and I came across a strange couple camped along the trail. It appeared that their main form of nutrition for the trip was a 24 pack of Mountain Dew. I verbally expressed my longing for one of those bright green cans and they were generous enough to offer us up a couple.

The memory triggered an immediate need for Mountain Dew at Fire Pit aid (mile 47.4). After a cup or 2, I buried that memory and poured some out for a lost homie.

I slogged my way up to Coosa Bald and was relieved when I topped out .

pic: Paige

I spent the next 4 miles descending towards Vogel. Despite the 50 miles or so already on my legs, the descent was a lot of fun! I knew the guy behind me (Brian) was relatively close (he’d been 1-6mins back all day), so I needed to push the last couple of miles. I hit Wolf Creek aid (mile 52), filled my bottle with a lil bit of water and dug in for the last 4 miles. In the last couple of CJ100s, the headlamp would come out for this long, drawn out duck waddle into Vogel. I was stoked that the sun was still shining bright and I still felt strong (and that I wasn’t at mile 102). I crossed the road and passed Becca as I dipped back into the woods. She snagged a 2nd place overall female finish and honestly… it didn’t even look like she had been moving through the mountains for +30hrs!

The moment my feet hit the pavement at Vogel I heard a camper yell:

“You want a beer?!”

Damn it felt good to be done.

11hrs20mins ~ 1st overall

pic: Grant

The Cruel Jewel folks really know how to put on a first class, authentic event. I can’t speak highly enough of the amount of effort, love and passion they put into this journey each year. The RDs and volunteers are half the reason I keep coming back to support this race.

pic: Grant

I can’t thank my Dark Princess enough for the incredible support she gave me all day!

Kati and I walked into the dining area to sit down for a bit. The heat and the gel diet was slowly catching up to me….

We enjoyed talking with Brian Oestrike post race. He’s such a humble bad ass. Hopefully I can link back up with him at Pinhoti 100 when I’m a lil more talkative and there’s a lil less poison ivy!

I spent the drive back to our cabin periodically getting Kati to pull over so that I could throw up in various Blairsville and Blue Ridge parking lots…

Thankfully the nausea settled overnight and we got to spend the next day exploring the Bigfoot museum…

And Amicalola Falls!

Cruel Jewel was the perfect way to cap off the end of a tough season of my life. I’m sure I’ll see ya again Dragon… in a couple of years.

“An adventure isn’t worth telling if there aren’t any dragons in it.”