My relationship with running and how I decided to run across the United States
Running hasn’t always been such a fixture in my life. In fact, I only started running around six years ago. With the encouragement of my girlfriend Shelley, we went on a 2.5-mile jog from our house to the downtown Daily Juice in Austin Texas. Afterwards we had to grab a cab home, because the thought of running back was unthinkable to me. It wasn’t long before I was going out for longer and longer runs – ones that didn’t require a cab ride home. I think the clarity and sense of accomplishment was so instantaneously gratifying for me that I actually started looking forward to lacing up my shoes and setting out for a run around the city. Around three months after that initial 2.5-mile run to Daily Juice, I ran my first half marathon. The following year, I bumped it up to a full marathon.
Having spent the majority of my life in the restaurant/bar scene, I had grown accustomed to and really good at the work-hard-party-even-harder lifestyle. In no way do I regret this time of my life, but I was getting bored with the routine: wake up late morning (or sometimes early afternoon), go to work, head to the bar, find or host an after hours get together, and then repeating it all the next day. Meanwhile, my job as general manager of the new and wildly successful pizzeria, Bufalina, left me with mounting responsibilities. I found myself searching for accountability and a more productive way to process stress and blow off steam. Running fit the bill. Running is like the opposite of a drug. When you do drugs you feel great in the moment and then feel like shit afterwards. With running, especially in the first months of training or getting back into shape, your body can feel pretty rough and at times downright shitty while you’re doing it, but you always feel great afterwards. One of the great things about running is that the more you do it, the more the rough or awkward physical feelings fade. Running eventually becomes flow and the experience can be amazing and blissful if you open yourself to that possibility. “I really wish I hadn’t gone for a run today,” said no one ever. Training runs became my go-to means to relieve stress, process daily challenges, and overcome obstacles that came with managing a business.
In January of 2015, shortly after opening our second location for Bufalina Pizza, I decided it was time to enter the ultra-marathon world. I naively signed up for a very difficult 50-miler called the Cruel Jewel in Northeast Georgia and in preparation, I completed my first ultra called the Hells Hills 50K in Smithville, Texas. Going beyond 26.2 miles and venturing into uncharted territory was exhilarating, and left me with a huge sense of accomplishment.
Then came the Cruel Jewel, a race set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Northeast Georgia, about an hour away from where I grew up. Only now can I see that I entered the race totally unaware of what I was setting myself up for. The Cruel Jewel was an extremely challenging course with an elevation gain and loss of over 17,5000 feet — oh yeah, and the course was actually 56 miles long.
Based on my time at Hells Hills, I calculated that the Cruel Jewel would take me somewhere around 9 hours to complete. Oh, I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. The course was absolutely brutal. There was no reprieve, ever. If I wasn’t going uphill I was going downhill. I hit the halfway mark somewhere around 7.5 hours. My IT band was already acting up, preventing me from moving with any speed down the hills. Who am I kidding, the uphills were taking their toll on me, too. At that point, I took note of how long I had been out there to realize that this effort was going to take much much longer than I had originally expected. With this realization and immense fatigue, I sat down at the base of a tree and cried. I literally couldn’t fathom continuing to suffer well into the night. The course had essentially beat me to a pulp. I allowed myself about two minutes of pity, stood up, and pressed on. Upon crossing the finish line shortly before midnight with a finishing time of 15 hours and 24 minutes, relief and joy flooded through me in a way I have never experienced before in my life. I had accomplished something that the me 7.5 hours before had deemed nearly impossible. But I didn’t give in. I had persevered. The Cruel Jewel showed me how sweet the reward could be after pushing through something difficult and painful. I’ve learned that hardships and setbacks help me to feel truly accomplished.
I became really hungry for more experiences like the Cruel Jewel. I wish I could say that I immediately signed up for my next race and never looked back, but life didn’t work out for me that way. After reveling in my accomplishment on an extended post-race trip to Spain, I jumped right back into work. I managed to maintain some amount of weekly miles strictly as a stress-reliever, but I simply did not have the time to invest in higher mileage. Eventually I broke from the stress of work and I made the extremely difficult decision to leave Bufalina. With that decision came a commitment to myself to re-evaluate where and how I wanted to spend my time and energy.
My big decision came in tandem with my partner Shelley’s decision to enroll in nursing school in Denver, Colorado. Together, we decided she would move to Denver for school and I would join here there after some travel. On September 7th, 2017 Hurricane Irma hit the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was the largest and most destructive hurricane to ever come out of the Atlantic. The backstory here is that I had lived on St. John for several years in my early 20s and still had many friends on island. The island as I knew it had been devastated, and word of everyone’s safety was painfully slow to make its way to us mainlanders. Less than two weeks after the first storm hit, another hurricane struck. I immediately began making plans to travel to the islands to help with the recovery efforts.
Upon arriving on St. John I was floored by the devastation. It is one thing to see pictures, hear accounts from friends, and short video clips on the news. But to actually set foot on the island and experience it for myself was simply dumbfounding. I can only imagine the fear and anguish that my friends actually lived through. I stayed in the half-destroyed home of a friend and did what I could to help pick up the pieces, both literally and figuratively. People’s belongings were strewn about everywhere, homes were demolished, and boats were sunk. My friends were rattled and showed clear signs of PTSD. Paradise had been lost and there was enough sorrow and mourning to go around for a lifetime. Nevertheless, through all of this the human spirit survived. There was still laughter as people banded together and helped each other out. I hope to carry with me four major takeaways from this experience: 1) Things do not matter. We spend our lives working mainly to collect useless “things” that can be destroyed in a moment’s time. 2) The human spirit is resilient and beautiful. 3) All we have is our health. 4) Mother nature is pissed. Climate change has to be addressed and there is no time to waste.
As Shelley pursued an accelerated bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado in Denver, I pondered what would be next. I kept wondering how I would fit running into this newfound lease on life. Without the stressors of a job, would I need or even want to run? The answer was absolutely yes. My maiden run around Denver was the freest I’ve felt in a long time and I never wanted to stop running.
I continued a routine of logging moderately long runs every day or so for the next month and a half. With each mile I contemplated my next career and every time I came up with a good idea, I was asking myself, “But when will I run?”
Soon came the Big Bend Ultra, a trail race in Terlingua, Texas that our friends and family have been attending annually for the past seven years. I placed 3rd in the 30K distance thanks to my new lease on life and my consistent training base! After the race I rolled through Austin to pick up our dog Kasha from Shelley’s parent’s house. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Chris and Clara greeted me with a big congratulations on my 3rd place male finish in Big Bend and then asked if I was interested in joining them on a trip to Central Mexico to compete in the Ultramaratón Caballo Blanco.
For those familiar with the book Born to Run, yes, it’s that race. For those who aren’t, the book tells the story of a race that takes place in the Copper Canyon of Central Mexico between the Tarahumara Indians and a small group of elite American ultra runners. The Tarahumara are extremely elusive, spending the majority of their time in cave dwellings high up in the canyon walls of the Barrancas del Cobre. There has been a small race held at the end on February since 2003 where those brave enough and savvy enough to travel to the start line have the chance to run alongside the Tarahumara.
How could I resist such an invitation! This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I was absolutely thrilled to be going. Near the end of February, 2018 Shelley’s sister Jamie, Chris, Clara, and I made the lengthy journey (plane + taxi + train + bus) down to Urique, a small town at the bottom of the Copper Canyon of Chihuahua Mexico. Chris and Jamie registered at the last minute for the marathon distance (which ended up being more like 30 miles) and I excitedly lined up to run my second 50-mile race.
Upon arriving in the canyon I knew that this experience would forever change me. Most of the racers are Tarahumara, who are awarded vouchers at three checkpoints throughout the race that they can redeem for corn throughout the year. The rest of the racers are comprised up of a small group of gringos and Mexican nationals whose race entry fees are used to purchase the corn. The founder of the race was an eccentric man named Micah True a.k.a. Caballo Blanco who spent many years living in the canyon himself. His vision was to help sustain a whole people whose livelihoods had been threatened by the cartels that have a stronghold on the region as well as their farmland. I was intrigued to learn that so many of the gringo runners had discovered a way to make running the center of their lives. One of these people was Patrick Sweeney, who had visited the canyon many times over the past ten years and who had also run across the United States in 2015.
While in the Copper Canyon I was very loose with my food decisions, mainly because I wanted to go with flow and not be a burden on our hosts who provided us with 2-3 meals a day. To be an easy guest meant eating a lot of meat, way more than I was use to. Over the last year, I had begun to move towards a plant-based diet as the most optimal choice for my health and my performance. But I had not yet made a decision to completely abstain from meat or animal products. On the afternoon before the race lunch was provided by our host. Jamie, Clara, and I ordered the beef fajita dish and Chris chose the chicken. What came to the table were three chicken dishes and only one beef dish. We all agreed that Clara could have the beef dish and Jamie, Chris, and I would take the chicken entrees. Chris ate his whole plate, Jamie ate a little over half of hers, and I, knowing that I had a big race the next day, finished my own plate and the rest of Jamie’s. After lunch we went back to our room to lay out our clothes and gear for the next day and went to bed early.
Somewhere around 4am I awoke to intense stomach pain and a horrible bout of diarrhea. Montezuma’s Revenge had struck less than three hours before the start of the race. Chris and Jamie awoke feeling less than ideal, themselves. I decided to go ahead and attempt the race hoping that the sickness would pass and that the worst was behind me. The start line was exhilarating. Mariachi bands played continuously, and the announcer feverishly pumped up the crowds in Spanish. Soon, we were off and one-thousand one-hundred runners crossed the start line. I felt pretty weak and hoped that the excitement of running with the Tarahumara would carry me through. The Tarahumara are amazing runners. The men dressed in white loincloths and brilliantly colored capes, while the women wore bright dresses. Almost all of them wore their traditional sandals, and many of them can easily cover 100 miles in a day.
Soon it became very clear to me that my energy levels were dwindling rapidly. Around mile 9, just before what would be the first of many intense climbs, I was overcome with nausea and vomited up whatever else was left in my body. With this episode, I lost every bit of energy I had garnered up from the excitement of the race. I somehow managed to make it up the large climb and back down again, but I knew I was done for. When I passed back through Urique at mile 20 I called it quits. I was extremely disappointed to not have completed the race and was also overcome with gratitude for having had the opportunity to participate in such a beautiful community event.
When I arrived back to Denver I was sure of two things: I was ready to transition into a 100% plant-based diet and I had to find a way to make running the center of my life. On March 15th 2018, I went out for my daily run around Denver. Less than two miles in, it struck me. I wanted to run across the United States. With the attention gained from tackling such a feat, I could start conversations with others about the importance of good food choices, both for their own health and for the environment. I imagined amassing together a band of like-minded and conscientious sponsors to join me in this mission. The first step was easy. I decided to start my transcontinental run one year from the day of its conception: March 15th, 2019. Figuring out every necessary step in between from physically training to logistics has been the majority of my work since.