What do you get when you mix the west Texas hill country with a combination of Team Red White and Blue Veterans that love to run? Three days of dirt and rock, laughter and pain. I was invited back to Camp Eagle for the third year in a row over the weekend of October 10-12, by Liza Howard, Director of the Team RWB Camp and a Leadville 100 Mile winner. My role was that of a mentor, to share my knowledge and experience with other trail runners and to also get to know them and hear their story. Friday afternoon saw a convergence of Vets at the San Antonio Airport and we boarded a charter bus that would transfer us to Camp Eagle, 2 hours west. At check in we were assigned cabins that would hold 8 of us. The porched cabins faced inwards toward the center of a circle and it encouraged introductions and conversation.So why a trail running camp? Team RWB has always been about enriching veterans lives through physical activity and connecting communities and veterans through such activity. It promotes a sense of family, connecting, engaging each other and the body as well as the mind and this is what a lot of Vets need today. A connection, an external release be it activity or conversation. Those in attendance came from a variety of levels pertaining to running.
The weekend consisted of a variety of clinics. On Friday night there was a night run of a couple of miles with headlamps. A way to shake the legs out and meet and greet. At 7 a.m. Saturday four groups were formed based on the level of fitness. B-Group was my assignment for the weekend. With a jolt of coffee and a quick introduction we headed for the trails and a sunrise run and to discuss our plan for the day. The morning sessions saw us running to points around camp and taking part in Trail First Aid and improving speed on the trail, both valuable to any runner. After lunch there was a core class and a session on Training Schedules. Saturday night I was honored to show my documentary “12 Million Steps”. The world is small but made even smaller when 2 people told me they had served with soldiers whose names had appeared in the film. Saturday nights bonfire revealed many touching stories. PTSD seems to be the most troublesome part of a Veterans life and many I talked to suffer from it. Many had contemplated suicide until their involvement with Team RWB which resurrected a will and desire to persevere. Many organizations do great things but often you never realize the impact until you experience it in a conversation.
Sunday morning greeted us with a beautiful sunrise up near a windmill. Moments like that remind us that only are feet took us to a beautiful place. A full agenda awaited us as we covered hydration, nutrition, technical uphill and technical downhill running followed by a day ending obstacle course covering 3 miles. I managed a spot out on the course shouting encouragement to all who ran by. For many particularly those in the back, this might be the only time they would challenge themselves on such a course. Later after all had finished the mentors raced off. The fast, fast guys were all up front, shirtless, but I, being more about self preservation and maintaining a much slower pace, opted to keep my shirt on. My moment of glory amounted to being the second shirt guy to finish….
One more early morning run on Monday awaited us. Slowly we made our way through the scrub oak and switchbacks. The confidence level of those in my group had risen to an unrecognizable level. I was like a proud parent. I do not know the adversity they face in their private lives, relationships and jobs but I sense they have the strength to persevere. In my talk the night before I said that it does not matter how many races you run, if you win or how fast you are. It does not matter how much money you make or how successful you are. At the end of the day what matters is what you have done for others. When you do that, you win.
It was June, a hot, dusty day, and the sign said, Old Books and Fresh Eggs. I was somewhere between Lander and Rawlings, WY on a relentless stretch of Highway 287. It is basically 160 miles of nothing and I mean NOTHING. Rolling asphalt and scrub brush bent by the years of constant pounding from winds that roll across the plains. There were many times when I had to shield a flag as I recorded the gps spot before planting it. Many times the ground was to hard and I would build a cairn of rocks to support a flag.On one occasion the wind whipped the yellow ribbon off the stick but being strong on my conviction, I wrote the soldier’s name on that tiny flag stick, placed it and moved on. For most of the day I had been reduced to 3 mile an hour and often less, as a wall of 40 mph gusts rocked the stroller and made me unsteady on my feet. It was hard. Looking up and seeing a ribbon of road going off into the horizon I imagined someone along the road reaching out to pull me along. So back to the sign. In a place called Sweetwater, is a small store, cabin like, and they do indeed sell old books and fresh eggs. I wandered around taking a break, blowing dust off of a “Moby Dick” novel. I loved the musty smell, the dirt stained windows and the creaks and groans of the old structure. Far away from towns with traffic lights and traffic. Far from Pizza Huts and Walmart’s. Far from excess. Outside chickens were clustered in a pen out of the wind. I never saw a soul. Filling my water bottles I headed back out. Not far from the book store across the road was a small, what seemed to be RV park. A few campsites and picnic tables dotted the area around a office building attached to a home. Peggy I had finally caught up to me on the highway. School was out for the summer and she would spend a couple of weeks shuttling me at the end of the day to a hotel, a host and KOA campgrounds. This was an area where I was not able to find a host family and were it not for her the days would have been made more difficult and the nights long and miserable. As the sun began to set we made plans for the night. “See if we can camp in the park there,” I asked. Feeling the wind increase I knew we would never get a tent up. Peggy returned with good news. “This is a private LDS campground but I told them what you were doing and they said it is okay to stay.” There were bathrooms, thank god, but no showers. Knowing a tent was out of the question we lowered the seats in her FJ Cruiser, put coolers and the stroller under the truck and crawled in. Somehow we managed to fit a full size inflatable bed in the back, bungee corded the door somewhat shut and hung a sheet to keep the cold out. By headlamp, we ate cold chicken and rice in a huge pot, passing it back and forth. A little chocolate milk to chase it down and then settled in for the night. The truck was swaying like a ship at sea and even with ear plugs in I did not sleep well in my 1/2 fetal position. By sunrise the next morning, the wind had died a bit and with a coffee in hand we wandered over to these old pull carts stacked up along the building. An older gentleman by the name of Robert came out and told us the story.
“Back in the day Brigham Young was intent on getting all his followers to Salt Lake City from Iowa. Rather than send for them by train, which was to expensive, he commissioned a pull cart company to build these carts. Each family was allowed 70 pounds of personal belongings for the journey.” He continued. “Well, the families then set out on foot, from Iowa, pulling the carts, headed for Utah. The eventually got to here, Sweetwater.” “Winter was setting in and they were caught by snows. The men gave what rations they could to the woman and children. Desperate to the situation, their plight seemed hopeless.” “Brigham Young, knowing that they were way beyond their arrival time, sent out some men to find them and it was here in Sweetwater that they were found. Many of the husbands and fathers had died due to starvation and sickness. The remaining members of the party made it to Salt Lake City.” My first thought was, “Thanks for that train ticket B.Y.” Robert continued with the story, “Each summer we commemorate that journey by recreating a small portion of it from here to a campground 7 miles away. Families come from all over wearing clothes from that era and they load up one of our pull carts and start walking.” I felt somewhat insignificant now pushing my stroller down a paved road. Mark Twain on one of his journeys west actually stopped in Sweetwater and had ice tea with actual ice cubes from ice under the mossy perma-frost nearby. All of this across the road from Old Books and Fresh Eggs….
The wind had died significantly as the sun rose higher and after a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee I began my days run. A few miles down the road my morning became a little weird. I entered the outskirts of the town of Jeffrey City, WY. I did not know it at the time but Jeffrey City had a storied past. As a mining town its ties were to the atomic bomb. Cold War uranium mining built the city in the early 1950’s but Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters killed it 30 years later. It is now virtually forgotten on this lonely stretch of Hwy 287. As I slow to a walk nature calls but I am hesitant to do much to appease that need. I look around and notice apartments and dormitory type buildings all boarded up. Weeds choke the city streets, tumbleweed rolls across the highway and a sign in front of a deserted gas station creaks and sways. I see a school with broken windows, alone and unwanted. It was as if I had stumbled into something out of Twilight Zone. My body was beginning to contort now in all sorts of strange positions as my bladder screamed for relief. And then I saw it. A truck parked in front of a bar alongside the highway and a red blinking neon sign that said “OPEN”. I open the door and walk in and the room is dark except for the faint rays of daylight through the front window. There is a long wooden bar and a Coors Beer sign behind it on the wall. A faded Snap On Tool Calendar hangs behind the cash register. The year on it says 1982. There are mounted deer heads on the wall and their blank eyes stare at me as if to say, “Welcome…..to the Hotel California” and I get this strange foreboding that I may never leave. The swinging doors that lead to the kitchen creak open and a young woman steps out, looks at me and says “ My mama has been watching you for 3 days, she’ll be here in 5 minutes,” Whoa. “Well then, can I use the bathroom first?” is my response. “Surely”, she says with a perky smile. Once business is taken care of and realizing that there is not an escape route except the front door I decide to wait this encounter out. About 1 minute later, on cue, a big Chevy Suburban pulls up. Dust settles outside. In walks a woman, small in stature, with a young teenage girl following behind. “I’m Barbara, this here is my daughter Cassie and other daughter Rachel, I been waiting to meet you, I been watchin’ ya for a few days now”. There is a long pause as we look at each other. “I appreciate that, always good to have extra eyes on the road” I say. “Now just curious, but how many people in this town?”. “17”, is her response followed by another long pause and another equally long stare. It is then that “soon to be 18” pops into my head and some weird scenario where I end up shackled in a basement somewhere with a ball gag, ala Pulp Fiction. I take note of my surroundings. One door, 2 women in front of me, 1 to the side, dark room. I am a little guy however I think I can take them. The silence is broken then, “So we was wondering if we might do a mile with ya?” My curiosity is perked. “We would really like to BUT, (she then takes a long drag off a cigarette, exhales and says) don’t think we can make it”. “That, Barbara, is not a problem. Why don’t I take little Cassie here and we walk that mile and place a flag and you can record it with your phone?” “Well that would just be wonderful”, she says. Rachel retreats to the kitchen and returns with a sack lunch for me. Kindness at its finest. Back in the bright sunlight Cassie and I begin our mile together. I learn that she took the family car one night and had a bit to much to drink. A bad accident about took her life. She walks with a slight limp and a scar runs from the top of her head down past her right eye to her chin. I direct gaze is impossible so she cocks her head slightly as she talks, studying my face as I listen. The big Suburban waits at the mile mark and Barbara gets Cassie on film as she places a flag. “What happens to them?” she asks. “Well some get picked up and some get blown away by this Wyoming wind” I reply. “But you know, you can pick up as many as you like”. Those word make her smile. We hug and part ways. I look behind me at Jeffrey City. Almost a ghost town on this isolated, forgotten stretch of highway. For all I know maybe it is. Two weeks later I would get an e-mail from Barbara. She went 10 miles back down 287 and picked up 10 flags. She brought them back to the bar, which she owned, and placed them in the front window in a fan shape with a sign that said “We love Our Veterans”. It turns out her son was in the Navy in the Persian Gulf and upon hearing of my run from a friend had, indeed, tracked me via the internet and my SPOT Beacon for 3 days as I approached Jeffrey City. Barbara had only wanted to meet me, to have Cassie do a mile and to extend her appreciation. Even in the nowhere of nowhere eyes were watching me……
The summer is coming to an end and with the nip of fall in the air I travelled to Big Sky Resort in Montana for the Rut 50K Trail Race. The Rut was the 5th and final race in the Sky Running World Series which consisted of races in France and Italy and here in MT.
In only its second year the Rut has exploded on to the trail running must-do race scene.
A total of 1200 runners took part. Friday saw 200 in the Vertical KM and on Saturday the 50K had 500 along with the 12k.
I chose the 50k because if I was driving 7 hours to MT I was going to get my moneys worth. Wow! did I ever.
In the darkness at 6 a.m. a bugling elk call sent us off on our way for 31 miles of trail, scree fields, high altitude exposed ridge lines and thin air.
I struggled the first couple of hours as I am not comfortable running at such an effort and so early, let alone running at 8000 feet. Knowing I would just have to be conservative, that gradually my legs would come around, I settled into a comfortable pace and watched runners half my age go by effortlessly. Enthusiasm gives way to experience. Its a nice thought and it was about 50% right today. Midway we began the first of 2 mega-climbs.. Step, breathe, step, breathe. Again and again and again…..
Slowly up a 40-45 degree slope of loose scree, climbing some 2000 feet to an exposed knife edge ridge line. Our you kidding me? That was painful in a mom-a-bee-stung me sort of way…or maybe child birth depending on your gender.
Down through loose rocks, down and down, stumble, ouch, stumble, scrape, stumble, run. At 16 miles I saw above me, “BoneCrusher” a daunting 3000 foot climb to the top of the Tram and at 11,200 the highest point on the course. By now my legs were feeling young again, at least thats what I told myself, and began my rhythmic system of breathing and stepping to the summit. I am comfortable at altitude and exposed but when I saw ropes and ski patrol scattered along the way I did not look down….either side of this sliver of a ridge. If there is one thing that will leads me through rigorous moments on the trail it is knowing that bacon awaits. At the summit I popped a couple of salty pieces into my mouth and barely stopping began to scamper down the ridge.
Being conservative and being patient was rewarding me now. The last 10 miles were an exhilarating array of single track switchbacks through the woods. Breathe, relax, body check, alive…Repeat. I have a competitive nature, not in a “at all costs have to win” way but more of a “have a plan, run hard, very hard and be satisfied” Even at my age there are still goals and I know anything can happen in a race. Your legs can bring tears to your eyes the last miles as you absorb each painful step, kicking yourself for going to fast to soon. Ignore your calories and hydration and your body shuts down ever so slowly. But…..take care of your body, listen and show patience and efforts are rewarded. Runners I had not scene in 5 hours suddenly appeared on the trail, alone in their personal struggle. Suddenly I did not have the legs of a 53 year old but those of the teenager I once was, running the country roads back in IL such a long time ago. There is tremendous joy when that moment of clarity comes. When your eyes are alert and your breathing controlled. When legs and arms all move in unison propelling you forward in a tumbling free fall of exuberance towards the finish… Yes these moments have become rare for me but still they come….With the sound of an elk bugling, with bacon still on my tongue, with trickles of blood on my legs I plunge down and down and finish with a smile and satisfaction…
(Mike would finish 136th overall and 3rd in the 50-59 Age Group) but as he says ” They are only numbers”…
“At mile marker 338, turn left, walk 100 meters and look for the stone wall” is all he said. I tried to get more information out of him but he did not budge. I was on the Natchez Trace Parkway and it was the middle of October. In less than a month I would be touching the waters of the Gulf in Galveston yet on this day it was very far away and as I ran off into the early morning fog I couldn’t help but wonder why I had been given such a message. Bill had been my host in Fall Hollow, TN and it was the night before I left that he told me I should make a stop to see someone. That someone was the “stone talker” and he was 67 miles away.
Just outside Florence, AL the Trace winds slowly through the countryside. A mind can sputter when staring at the cotton fields. Thoughts took me back in time to days when the fields were harvested by hand and broken backs. When dreams wilted in the heat but did not die. When sweat meant hope for another sunset. The red clay caked my bare feet as I walked, creeping up between my toes.I closed my eyes and listened, trying to get a feel for how it would have been to pick cotton all day under a scorching sun. Trying to understand a time when all men were not equal. The mind meanders and not always does it comprehend.
The road climbs and enters the welcome canopy of shade and up ahead on the left side of the road I see the green mile marker. Number 338. Normally I do not like to deviate from my route. The clock is always ticking and I knew there would be someone waiting for me at the end of my day, however I sensed that today time could wait.
Rising from the rust colored Alabama earth, the stone wall appeared up ahead. Upon closer examination this was no ordinary stone wall but something unique, solid and obviously built with tender care. From what I could make out, it wove its way through the woods in a straight line with ninety degree corners to go around trees. The stones were flat and of a shape and weight that most people could handle with relative ease. The height was four to five feet and the width at least twenty feet. Stones were laid in a tight pattern on both sides and in the center were loose rocks as if they were the water filling a moat. I made my way to the front of the property and walked in. There in a chair sat an old man with gray hair and a hint of Native American in his features. I spoke first. “I like your wall and I build walls too.” Producing my phone I showed him the wall of flags from Minnesota to that point. Each red dot, a name and those names had formed one long continuous line on my screen. “I heard of your coming and have been waiting to talk to you”, he replied. So the story begins…
“Have a seat my friend” he said. “I like what you are doing, and I can see in your eyes that you have a good heart”.
I knew that I was in the presence of someone special. The words rolled off his tongue in a way that grabbed your attention like thunder on a summer night and I felt myself leaning forward in anticipation of his next sentence…..
“At the age of 10 in 1936, my grandmother started to share stories with me. Why the rivers sang. Why brother rabbit lost his tail, why brother turtle smiles. She has held my imagination ever since. I remember her disappearing into the woods and returning hours later with a basket full of various types of plants and herbs She told me that the plants cured many things and she had learned the practice from her grandmother, my great-great grandmother. It was about this time that I was in the fourth or fifth grade that she began to share the story of her grandmother and now I share it with you.”
“The year was 1838 and Native Americans were being gathered up in northern Alabama and surrounding states. They would then be force marched to the west, to Oklahoma to reservations near Muskogee. Thousands would die along the way and it became known as the Trail of Tears. My great-great grandmother was Yuchy. She was only fifteen and lived not far from here in a cabin above the river near here, when her and her sister were taken. Before arriving in Oklahoma they were given something quite unique at the time. Something that would prove that what I am telling you is true. They were given brass tags, octagon shaped, to be worn around their necks. My great-great grandmother was Number 59 and her sister was Number 60. That first winter in Oklahoma was long and cold and one spring morning in the following year she slipped away and began the long walk back to Alabama. At the time she faced the risk of being hung if she was caught. It took her five years to make it back to this county. Five years of inhospitable conditions, hunger and thirst, and loneliness that shrouded her soul day and night. How do I know this to all be true? She is listed in the Oklahoma archives as Number 59, Alabama Female, Age 18, deceased. I have in my possession tag Number 59 which she brought back with her, she did not die. The tag and story have been passed down to me. This is not the only record I have of her return. She was a magician with her medicines When she arrived back here she met my great-great grandfather and he took her as his wife. With her magical medicines she began curing many people and in a short time many people started to come to her. Many people. In 1845 a Methodist minister by the name of Wiley Edwards showed up, not only a minister but the top educator in the county. He came to her with some medical problems and she cured him. Wiley Edwards was fascinated by her. Not only by her homeopathic knowledge and cures for ailments but of her story of hardship and travel. On February 13, 1845 he sat down and began to record her story. He would come back almost daily for 2 years, till the fall of 1847. Meticulously, he would record his questions and her answers and though lengthy in time and relatively short in volume, he ended up with a 168 page journal. I have in my possession, that journal, passed down to me. To give you an idea of what this man did I am going to read you the first page……………..