Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Vermont

Cowboy beard

The swim this morning was a stunning course in Lake Champlain, Vermont. A large group  of local swimmers showed up to push the cowboy along- including a teenage swim team. The clear water was a comfortable 70 degrees, but James wore a wet suit anyway. The long consistent efforts day after day have all but eliminated any subcutaneous fat on his body. He resembles a body builder preparing for a contest, veins spreading like spider webs across his stomach, lats, and back. Without the insulation, James is incredibly susceptible to hypothermia. He body temperature drops, and like a cold blooded reptile, he has to rely on his surroundings to warm him back up again.

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.facebook.com/Ironcowboy/photos_stream
https://www.facebook.com/Ironcowboy/photos_stream

The escort group of swimmers lead James through the clear lake waters but despite being the only one to wear a wet suit, James couldn’t handle the mild temperatures. The group was forced to hug the shore line in search of warmer waters. When the swim was finished, James exited the water, shivering uncontrollably. His core body temperature had dropped. Just as James feared might happen, he was hypothermic. He got into the Subaru and wingman Casey blasted the heater until James had warmed up enough to begin the bike course. He stated afterwards that this was the hardest swim yet.

https://www.facebook.com/Ironcowboy/photos_stream
https://www.facebook.com/Ironcowboy/photos_stream

Surprisingly, this is not a uncommon occurrence among many endurance athletes. There have been many chilly days that I have headed out for an all day bike ride, and failed to bring enough extra layers. It’s a risk, but the hope is that your body and the surroundings will warm up enough in the first little bit that you don’t have to encumber yourself with the bulky extra gear. Sometimes though, you make the wrong choice and it doesn’t warm up.  I’ve found myself hours from home, shivering uncontrollably, with no alternative but to ride back. It’s absolutely agonizing. There have been three different times in the last year that I have cried out of physical discomfort -cried like a child. All three of these have been on cold, solo bike rides where I didn’t bring enough clothing and I had suffered hypothermia as a result. The cold would first penetrate my thick gloves and booties and become unbearable in my hands and feet. It would then spread to the top of my head before seemingly entering my blood, as if every beat of my heart circulated the icy fluid and dropped by  core body temperature another degree.  I would begin to yawn uncontrollably and would have to fight the overwhelming urge to pull off of the road, lie down in the dirt and fall asleep. Instead, I’ve pushed along, sobbling like a child – tears and snot freezing into my beard for hours as I’ve pedaled towards home.

James was met by a group of Vermont riders for the bike, but only one of them was familiar with the bike course. The savvy rider led the small group through the first loop but decided to not go any further. James and his group continued but it wasn’t long before they were completely lost and riding aimlessly through the beautiful Vermont country side.

https://www.facebook.com/Ironcowboy/photos_stream
https://www.facebook.com/Ironcowboy/photos_stream

James is a veteran. He know’s that there is no point wasting energy on things that he has no control over. Instead of allowing the situation to affect him, he simply put his head down, brushed off the potential frustration, did his best to stay positive, and kept moving forward. The scenery made one feel like they had stepped into a generic farm scene captured in a 100 piece puzzle designed for 8-10 year olds. The roads rolled over green hills with tall trees and endless pastures. There were red barns with white trim and tall rounded silos. Large round bales of hay lay in methodical patterns along zigzagging wooden fences. Every few miles was a beautiful church with sky scraping steeples and stain glass windows. James looked at the road ahead of him and pedaled – one foot, then the other.

vermont bridgeIt was at this point that the logistics of the day began to get tricky and the behind the scenes began to fall apart a bit. We were all concerned about James having the fuel he needed for the day but there was no way to contact him. His phone had turned off, and because he had gone off course, it was impossible to track him down. At the same time, much of the crew was trying to sleep – doing their best to catch up from the 4 hour drive last night from Maine to Vermont (a drive that began after midnight), and prepare for the drive tonight from Maine to New York (another 4 hour drive that will begin after midnight). Sleep is absolutely necessary for the crew to remain functional and keep James going strong. The grind out here feels just like Hood to Coast, or a Ragnar Relay – except that instead of the relay lasting for a couple of days, it lasts  for weeks. The helplessness was stressful for everyone. Eventually contact was regained with James and after finishing the 112 miles, he was picked up with the motor home, 20 miles way from the projected finish location.

The marathon started from the Echo Center, on the water front of Lake Champlain in the city of Burlington. We ran along the bike path that skirts the edge of the lake with a group of about a dozen runners. Sail boats floated effortlessly across the glassy water as the sun began to sink towards the hilly horizon. Light reflected off of the lake and created colorful beams of yellow and blue. In one direction, everything was bathed in a glowing hue. In the other direction, the world was a silhouette. The Iron Cowboy 5k was to commence promptly at 7:00 pm, but as we ran, one of the accompanying runners informed the group that she had just received a Facebook notification informing that the start had been pushed back to 7:30. James didn’t ask who had sent it or any other detail; he simply looked forward and said, “Ok, let’s keep running then.” So we did. Right before 7:30 we were met by an anxious Casey who had been trying hard to track us down, while simultaneously entertaining a huge group of anxious 5k runners – none of whom had received the notification for the 7:30 time change. As it turned out, the runner in our group seemed to be the only one who received the mystery message.

Vermont water frontAfter James shared an inspirational message to the wonderful people of Vermont, the large group joined our smaller group of runners and we moved once again down the path that skirted the lake – now glowing orange as the summer sun sank lower and lower with every passing minute. James was accompanied, as usual, by his oldest daughter Lucy, as well as his social butterfly Lily. People had come in from many other surrounding states for the chance to run with the Iron Cowboy. Within the pack of runners, there was even the peculiar sound of Quebecois French. The group finished the run at the docks that surrounded the Echo center. The area was alive with people gathering to catch a glimpse of the sun setting over the water. There seemed to be nationalities from all over the world. On the corners were shops that sold soft serve ice cream, maple creamees, hot dogs, and Quebec poutine. Leather boat shoes seemed to be the common theme that tied together all of the vibrant diversity.

Vermont 5kJames continued to click off miles with a good sized group. I stopped for the night and tried to focus on what needed to be done before out next long stretch of highway. I was sweaty and salty. I yearned for a shower, or even just a hose, but there was nothing in sight. In an attempt to make the best of the situation I headed to the docks with fellow crew member “Parkins” and analyzed the best way to descend into the water. The docks were tall-ish making an easy exist a difficult prospect. I imagined my skinny distant-runner body, grasping the upper ledge of the wooden dock, trying desperately to pull myself back up out of the water but succeeding only in bursting a blood vessel in my eye from all of the strain. Eventually the salty itch was too much and I decided I’d risk it. I considered a dive, but quickly changed my mind to a robust jump. I decided against that too and in the end I resorted to a slow slide off of the ledge in the same way a cat grasps for the edge of a bathtub as its owner pushes it into the water.  As my feet made contact with the bottom, I looked down and realized that the water level reached just above my navel. I was instantly relieved that I hadn’t attempted a swan dive – or perhaps more apropos for the region, a Canadian goose dive. I rinsed off my body and scrubbed the salt that had crystallized in my beard. I let the water run into my mouth and swished it around. It tasted the way frog pee smells. I squeamishly spit it back out.  I was ready to attempt my exit climb up the deck when a large man in boat shoes and a polo approached.

“Hey!” he shouted. “You know you probably shouldn’t be swimming in there. There’s a blue-green algae bloom taking place. That stuff will kill you if it get’s in your mouth.”

“That’s unfortunate.” I replied. “Does it happen to taste like frog urine?”

The man just looked back at me.

“What does one do if they hypothetically did consume a minute portion of said blue-green algae and would like to not die?” I asked.

“Well, uh…” he stammered.

“Is there any sort of anecdote I can take post-consumption to nullify it’s lethal effects?” I continued, wondering what other lethal flora we would encounter before we exited New England.

The man looked back at me and retorted with a half laugh, half snort, “Yeah! Drink more beer!”

“Welp…” I thought. “I guess this is it.”

James finished the Marathon around midnight with his solid escort. He had a good night. We loaded into the vehicles and pointed them towards New York where we will all compete in the Kingston, NY HITS Triathlon tomorrow.  The crew will complete the 70.3 and James will complete the 140.6 – cause that’s just what he does.

James finished off the night with this message, “ Number 35 – Vermont has been owned. Solid crew to the finish. With a little over 4000 feet of climbing on the bike today…I’m concerned about the NY HITS Triathlon event tomorrow with over 6500 feet of climbing. Then again, not super worried cause I’ll just keep pedaling and get er done. Today was the first marathon in a few weeks where it was close to pain free…ish.”

There it is. That’s the secret. Things are hard for James – just like they are hard for everybody. The humanity that unites us is universal. There is nobody in this world who doesn’t hurt. There is nobody who doesn’t fear. We each have a burden that is custom made for our own weary shoulders. Our demons speak to each of us in their unique, persuasive voices. We all feel insecure. We are all afraid of failure. At the same time, we are all equally afraid of success. The only difference that James possesses is that he simply keeps moving forward. It doesn’t matter what particular struggle is challenging you right now, the advice is the same. Keep fighting. Keep struggling. Keep pushing. Chin up. Stout heart.  Look at the challenge with a positive lens and do as James does -Every. Single. Day. “Just keep pedaling and get er done.”

Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Maine

PC: @cookjared @seanslobodan
PC: @cookjared @seanslobodan


James finished the New Hampshire marathon just before midnight. He was tired. It had been a long day. Everything about it had tested his limits -the hills, the heat, the humidity, and the monotony of running mile after mile around a track. The rush he felt in at the end of Massachusetts had left him both invigorated, and simultaneously defeated. Was it worth it? who knows. Sometimes you need to indulge a bit to see where your limits really are. Massachusetts allowed James to realize that when he thought he had reached his breaking point, he could still dig a little bit deeper. James may have regretted the Massachusetts push as he rounded the track in New Hampshire, but there will undoubtedly come another day in the coming weeks where he will think he has no more to give. When that heavy moment arises, he will have Massachusetts to look back on -it may be that single positive experience that silences his demons and pulls him out of the darkness.

We left New Hampshire just after midnight and commenced the 4 hour drive to Maine. There was a bit of an impromptu stop at a hotel just moments away from our final destination. Little Quinn, who had been cuddling with daddy James all night, had gotten sick. They thought it best to find a real restroom, rather than bounce around in the compact Motor home bathroom with a sick 5 year old. The little fighter Quinn didn’t quite make it in time and lost it before the entrance of the hotel. In an exhausted delirium I stood at the hotel’s front door as wingmen Casey and Aaron did what they could to clean up the mess. Those two really are rock solid. We glanced at each other -the fatigue from New Hampshire still bearing down on everyone’s shoulders -no one wanting to verbalize what was on everyone’s mind, “It’s almost 4:00 am. Nobody has slept. We have less than 3 hours before the Iron Cowboy starts his next Ironman distance triathlon.” It was almost too much to even imagine – for myself at least. I’ve only been out here a relatively short time. Casey and Aaron are seasoned veterans. You can see it in their tired eyes, and in the way they methodically carry out the work necessary to keep the Iron Cowboy and the rest of the crew going. At the same time though, they are always ready to crash hard into a deep sleep if the opportunity for an impromptu nap presents itself. Carrying the burden of full time crew support, and nightly drivers, they never know when the next opportunity to get a few hours of shut-eye may arrive.

I looked at my watch and wondered if there was even any point in trying to sleep. The sun would be rising by the time I rested my head and a short time later James would be awoken from his slumber, force down some food, and drop his exhausted body into the water. I knew though, that it would be foolish and I would be useless if I wasn’t at least a little bit rested. I laid down for what felt like only a second before waking up with that nauseous sleep deprived feeling. I drank some water,  and moved my jittery body towards the pool.

The swim was held at the Y in Biddeford Maine. Local swimmer, and 12 time Olympic medalist Jenny Thompson came out to support James by swimming next to him. Their two bodies glided side by side through the water. The contrast was stark. James moved muscularly, his tired mass forcefully crushing the liquid medium like a Mack truck. His movements were labored, but it was apparent to everyone who watched, that he would not be stopped – like a giant ship that slowly cuts through the arctic ice.  Jenny moved as if she had been born in the water, with effortless movements that made you wonder if she was bound by the same laws of physics as the rest of humanity. There was no struggle, no resistance, only graceful, beautiful movement. It was as if she controlled the water around her; as if she had commanded it to move before her and shift its current in her direction. The water, knowing that she was Jenny Thompson, obediently carried out her command.MAINE swim

Jenny and I talked as James prepared for the bike. She was kind and gracious. I thanked her for coming out to support James and tried to articulate how much it meant to him. “Of course.” she replied,  “He’s an inspiration.” She then extended her hand with a gift for James -a white swim cap with an American flag and in blue bold text, the word, “THOMPSON”. She had written a personal message for James and signed it. I thanked her profusely, but said, “James will love this, but can you give it to Sunny instead? She’s the blonde one sitting right over there. She’s the one who makes all of this happen.” Jenny stuck around and was even willing to give a few words to the film crew.  It will surely be featured in the full length documentary that is in the works.

DCIM999GOPRO

 

Maine welcomed us with another beautiful Bike course. The difference between Maine and the other New England states is that in Maine, it was actually possible to find a flat road. We looped back and forth on the coastal roads. The path skirted the sandy beaches that emerged from the blue green water and wrapped around huge slate colored rocks. Beach houses with white picket fences, weathered wood shingle siding and American flags, rose on all sides. Small marshes sprawled out in the distance, with floating lily pads topped with bright pink flowers. As we looped away from the coast and into the country we rode past colonial era houses and grassy plots with 18th century granite head stones. Shacks with fresh Lobster dotted the corners, and homemade cloth signs, with hand stitched lettering tempted passersby with the promise of Lobster Rolls.

I ate my first Lobster Roll a few nights ago in Massachusetts.  My life was forever changed in that very moment. The toasted buttered bun, the lettuce, the mayo and the freshest New England Lobster, married together in a way that could have had no other origin than deity itself. On the 7th day God rested. On the 8th day, God created the lobster roll.Maine bike shopThe bike course dragged on and the accumulative fatigue built. I sat out one of the loops and tried to sleep in the back of a minivan parked on the side of the road. My body seemed to jerk reflexively with the sound of every car passing car – an indication to me that the much anticipated compensatory measures were being carried out by my adrenal system. “2 hrs of sleep a night?” my body asked. “Oh, ok. Why didn’t you tell us that sooner?” I tossed and turned for about an hour before finally relinquishing my attempts and forcing my weary body out of the van. An image of my face reflected off the window and I was startled to see the puffy eyes of my nauseous reflection make contact with my own tired eyes.  I loaded back up on the food and drinks James might need in the next few hours of riding and stuffed them into my pack. When James and his local escort arrived a few minutes later, there was a quick pee break before we hit the road again. James was tired and having trouble staying awake on the bike. I tried to keep him engaged without adding to his growing fatigue. The last thing James needs at this point, is to fall asleep on his bike and crash again.

Maine bikeWe finished the bike course and slowly transitioned to the run – accompanied by a large group of local runners and even a dog. The path was a series of out and backs on the Eastern Trail, a heavily shaded cinder path that cuts for thousands of miles through the dense forest. The path was perfect, but within a few minutes the bugs came out and attempted to feast on our slow moving, scantily clad bodies. I ran a few steps behind James, watching carefully to swat any mosquito or fly that landed on his back or shoulders, while at the same time, trying to keep them off of my own bare skin. The method worked ok, until it was time to pee. The short break was just enough time for the hovering bugs to dive down and latch on with their irritating, stinging anchors. I resisted the urge to stop and empty my bladder but by focusing on James throughout the day I had failed to keep myself properly hydrated. The urine in my gut was concentrated with metabolic waste and it burned the inside of my bladder as we slowly ran along.Eastern trail

When I couldn’t take it any longer I tried to execute a maneuver I had seen Rob Krar perform. A few weeks before Western States, my brother Jake and I were on a group run in the mountains outside of Flagstaff with Rob and Chris Vargo. We were moving fast on a groomed trail at around 9000ft elevation. About a half hour into the run, I noticed Rob adjusting the front of his shorts as he ran a few feet in front of me. He kept his hand down by his crotch as we ran and I wondered what he had stored in his front pocket. All of a sudden a steady stream of liquid- tinted lightly yellow- arced away from Rob’s pelvic region and showered the ground beside him.

www.teamrunflagstaff.com
www.teamrunflagstaff.com

It took me a second to register that Rob was peeing while running at a sub 7 minute mile pace at 9000 ft elevation. I was blown away. I didn’t even know that was possible. It was a complete paradigm shift for me – like the way I felt the first time I saw someone bite the head off of a string cheese without properly peeling it into long hair-like strands. I didn’t even know you could do that. Mind. Blown.

 

Detrusor

I focused, and pushed, and did my best to keep running, knowing that if I stopped I would spend the next few days with itchy red welts all over my body. All of a sudden I felt a release and knew that I had been successful. “Haha! Thank you Rob!” I thought, as I felt the concentrated urine begin to leave my body. I experienced a strange sense of pride for the incredible example of bodily control that I had just carried out. But then, I quickly realized that all I had done, was successfully pee all over both of my legs. “Damn you Rob.” I thought. “Damn you and you’re never ending basket of talents.”

When the need to go arose again, just 20 minutes later, I was a bit more hesitant.  I held it as long as I could, but concentrated urine doesn’t sit well. I realized  though, that an assortment of bug bites all over my body was much worse than possibly peeing on my legs again,  so I made a second attempt. This time I was more prudent though. Instead of running forwards and into my stream, I decided to try running backwards away from my stream. I focused all of my internal energy while still noticing the cloud of mosquitoes that hovered all around.  The stream began to flow and to my delight I noted that I was not peeing all over myself. Not only that, but as a single daring mosquito made a dive bomb attempt towards my exposed man parts, I diverted the stream and successfully shot him out of the sky as if with a fire hose. “Ha!!” I exclaimed. “Try that Rob Krar”.

We finished 7 miles of running before the Iron Cowboy 5k. James had a chance to eat some food and put some bug deterring oils on his body before heading out with the group. After the 5k he was joined by a smaller group as he ran down the Eastern Trail to finish the 26.2 miles.

I was exhausted. As the night wore on, I was having a harder and harder time remembering what state we were in and the names of the people I had spent almost every minute with over the last 6 days – the combined effect of hours of aerobic effort through muggy New England, and the fact that I had been awake for 46 of the last 48 hours. Still though, when compared on a spectrum, my level of fatigue pales in comparison to where James is at. I really have no idea where he gets the strength to do what he does.

In exhaustion, James fell asleep almost instantly. He awoke this morning in Vermont with this message, “Fell asleep last night before I could post. Maine was the most exhausted I’ve felt in weeks. Not so much in the pain department just total physical drain. 34 is a lot of Ironman distances to cover in so many days. The east coast has been tough on me with all the hills. Vermont should prove to be hilly today. I need to figure out a way to power through the ride today.”

Maine finish

Another tough day ahead. I’ll make sure to let you all in on the nitty-gritty details.

Riding Shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: New Hampshire

NH James and lucyWe woke up in Claremont to a dark sky full of fast moving clouds. There was mist rising up off of the dense trees that covered the rolling hills in every direction. The spires of old red brick churches jutted upwards and made the setting feel aged – as if we had stepped back in time.

NH old church

 

The swim was located at a great facility with a nice 25 meter pool. James went right to work. Sunny joined in and kept James company as he moved through the water. It was yet another demonstration of how much of a family endeavor this is. Sunny is incredible. It is impossible to spend any amount of time around her and not absolutely love her. She works tirelessly but with such an air of grace that it doesn’t even look like work. She keeps everything moving in the right direction and is the driving force behind all of this.

NH Swim

There was a wonderful breakfast spread prepared for us in the transition – pancakes, eggs, bacon, local blue berries, and New Hampshire maple syrup. We all sat at a long table and ate as the local news agencies interviewed James. “What’s your favorite state so far?” one asked. James looked up with a tired smile, “Today it’s New Hampshire.” he replied.  The questions continued and James gave quiet responses between bites, as if his body had a governor placed on it that knew exactly what was coming in the next 12 hours, and wouldn’t allow him to expend any more energy than absolutely necessary. Nearing the end of the interviews, one reporter asked, “Why are you doing this?” James looked up slowly with a furrowed brow as if begging the question, “Didn’t we already mention the part about putting an end to childhood obesity?” but he didn’t respond. Sunny’s gaze shifted from James’ tired face to the camera and interjected, “I’ll answer this one.” All eyes turned to her as she continued, “We are doing this, because if you don’t do something crazy, nobody cares.”

James was joined by a bike escort, led by local triathlete Jason McCaffrey. They rolled out of the swim complex as the skies opened and rain began to fall. It didn’t even seem to faze the Iron Cowboy. Instead of focusing his emotional energy on trying to change the weather, he simply focused on what he had control over. A little rain was not going to stop him. Even a lot of rain wouldn’t stop him.

He calmly put on gloves and a rain jacket. His kids were waking as he prepared to leave. He took time to hug each one, waiting for them to break the embrace as if he had all the time in the world for each one independently.  He then mounted his bike, and without ceremony, simply rode into the falling rain.

It had been a short night. We left Massachusetts late and didn’t get into New Hampshire until well past midnight. I was tired. I put in a solid swim session in one of the lanes next to James and Sunny this morning – more than anything to just wake me up a bit. I resisted the urge to consume any caffeine as I knew that if I did, it would be impossible to take a short nap if the opportunity arose. Caffeine can only sustain you for so long. Eventually you need actual sleep. If I caffeinate, the quality of sleep is decreased, which leaves me feeling tired and in need of more caffeine when I do wake up. It quickly turns into a cycle of dependence- one that I am trying to avoid if possible.

We all drove back to the host house. I laid down and quickly fell into deep sleep. I awoke a bit later not knowing where I was or what day it was.  I immediately saw that I had just missed a text from James.

James said he was feeling heavy and that it was going to be a long day. Jason, the leader of the local bike escort, had gone down hard while at a wet rail road crossing. He was bruised up pretty good, but got back on his bike and kept going. The course was hilly and the storm clouds had burned off as the sun heated up leaving muggy, humid conditions.

NH screen shotJames said he needed some motivation to get him through the day and asked if I could prepare an IPod with Rich Roll’s audio book, “Finding Ultra”. James really looks up to Rich and knows that he is a great source of knowledge when it comes to a feat like this. Rich is one of the few people in the world who actually have  any context for the struggles and challenges – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and logistical – that a journey like this entails. James knew that hearing Rich talk about his own struggles and his will to overcome would help get him through a tough day.

www.richroll.com
www.richroll.com

I quickly called James who answered while on the bike – one of the great advantages of having his Jaybird earbuds. “Sorry I missed your text.” I said.  “I fell asleep and didn’t hear my phone”. “Oh yeah, I bet you’re exhausted.” he sarcastically quipped back at me, tempered with a humorous tone that instantly put my perceived exhaustion back into context. We both laughed and sorted out the logistics. He was doing better.  Jason was tough and in good spirits and the bike escort was working well together to keep the pace moving forward.

NH cycling depotJames finished the bike portion at the Claremont Cycle Depot with the sun beating down hard. He ate a bit of food and made sure he was up on hydration before we headed out on the run with a small group.  It seemed impossible to find a flat stretch of road. “New Hampshire is trying to kill me”, James said as we cruised down a long hill, knowing all too well that on this out-and-back course, he would have to climb back up it. The country side was breaktakingly beautiful.  The deep green hills of Vermont rolled in the distance as we looked from New Hampshire over the Connecticut River. Old barns and abandoned colonial houses covered in Ivy, cast shadows on stretches of smooth black road. The path was lined with sturdy country homes set atop huge expanses of green pasture. Two little brown and white calves looked up at us from their grassy beds under the shade of enormous green deciduous trees. I thought to myself that if everybody could see these two baby bovines, resting in the green country side in all its splendor, surely they would  have no the desire to eat any beef ever again. Instantly I remembered that I had consumed two enormous cheese burgers for lunch and felt it best to focus on my own goals in this matter before advocating a change in others. I mooed at them a couple of times to see if I could bring them closer for a better look, but with no success. They were as comfortable as any two calves have ever been and they were not keen on getting up for a couple of bearded, emaciated men. We passed a homemade sign nailed above a small hand crafted wooden table that read, “Free Vegetables”. “Are you kidding me?” I thought to myself. “Is this place seriously real?” I turned to one of the runners that accompanied us and asked, “Is this the ‘Hidden Valley’ where they make the Ranch salad dressing and the kids actually like to eat theirs vegetables?”

hidden-valley-ranch

James stopped to pee and I took the opportunity as well. As I walked toward the thick brush in search of a small space, obstructed from view by the rest of the world, I saw some small wild black berries. I reached down and picked a few. Just as I was about to put them in my mouth one of the runners that accompanied us commented nonchalantly, “Be careful, there is poison Ivy everywhere.” The thought startled me so much that I accidently smooshed the black berries in my hand and dark juice dripped down my arm resembling blood. “What?!” I exclaimed back. “It’s that stuff right there.” she replied pointing everywhere with a wide sweeping wave of her hand – “The shiny one with the three green leaves that have a hint of red”. I stood motionless and looked down at my feet. It really was everywhere.  I slowly backed out of my small Ivy alcove, licked the blackberry juice off of my salty arm and aimed my frightened body toward the middle of the road. I scanned the brush and couldn’t stop obsessing about the ivy on all sides. “What other plants do you guys have that might try to kill us?” I asked one of the locals as I ran next to James, somehow feeling that I would be safer from the villainous flora if I stayed close to the Iron Cowboy. He could probably eat a salad made of it.

A couple of minutes later James slowed to a walk and asked if I had packed any Toilet paper in the Nathan snack pack that I wore on my back. I hadn’t, and I instantly saw the potential seriousness of the looming situation. James asked a couple of the local runners how far it would be before a restroom. “Uh…a mile, maybe 2.” one responded.  “Dang.” James muttered under his breath as he slowed to walk again. We started to look around on all sides for some small area in the forest that he could duck into, but everywhere we looked was covered in Poison Ivy. It was as if Jumanji had collided with a film set that was doing a commercial on the effects of not using Pepto Bismol.  The urgency increased and in desperation James chose an area that looked as if it posed a bit less of a threat as the groves composed of nothing except Poison Ivy. He walked to the edge of the road and was just about to make a leap into the unknown foliage, when he was shaken out of it by the loud sound of a cowbell. “Ruuun!!” I thought, expecting to see the momma of the tiny brown and white Hidden Valley Ranch calves charging at us in a full gallop, lactating utters flapping in both directions, intent on making me pay for bullying her babies.  I looked up the road and was even more startled when what I actually saw was a kind eyed woman on a huge, candy apple red, riding lawn mower moving in our direction. At the end of her extended arm was a cowbell shaking wildly over her head. Her smile indicated that she was anticipating us. “Salvation” I thought, hoping she would have a restroom that James could use, preferably indoors and without lethal plants involved. We walked up the road and were met by the unconventional savior, a wide smile on her face, and a huge spread of food and drink laid out on a table in front of her home. “Impeccable timing.” I told the lady, who was a complete stranger to me. She smiled wider and wrapped my salty, sticky, sweaty body in an enormous bear hug that she didn’t seem eager to unwrap. I knew in that exact moment that she would do whatever was needed to keep the Iron Cowboy going strong.

We flipped and pointed our running shoes back towards the Bike Depot. As we moved along, our small band of runners increased – being met along the route by more people eager to spend a few minutes running next to James.  We talked about their beautiful state as we ran.NH runOne of the runners turned to me and summed it up by saying, “Live free or die. That’s our motto. That’s what we live by. So don’t touch our guns, don’t try to get us to pay your taxes, and understand that in these parts, we hold in high regard the ability to speak candidly. We’re real around here.  Live free or die. We’re real people.”

live free or die

The Iron Cowboy 5k had another great turnout. James spoke to the group that had gathered and a sense of inspiration spread through the crowd. Lucy, Jame’s oldest daughter joined her Daddy for the 3.1 miles and ran effortlessly by his side. As they ran through a cemetery, some of the words that James had spoken to the group stood out to me. He was in the process of explaining why his family is doing what they are doing. “This is the first generation where parents will outlive their children. I have 5 children. I don’t want to bury any of them”. The sun sank in the back ground as Lucy and James ran past the head stones and out of the cemetery. It painted a perfect picture of what James and his family are working so hard to implant into the minds of every individual in this country.

LucyAfter the 5k, there were still a few stubborn runners that stuck with James as he left the bike depot and ran towards a high school track -Jason being one of them. It had been a long hard day, and James wanted to run as flat as possible, even if that meant 16 miles around a 400 meter oval.

The night rolled on.

It’s been hours since the sun sank into the rolling green hills, setting the sky ablaze with orange and pink flames.  I’m sitting in a hot car swatting at mosquitoes as they rest on my arms and try to take a drink.  Every few minutes a light shines a glare that moves across the windshield and I instinctively look up into the beam of James’ head lamp. Lap after lap he keeps moving -kept company only by a couple of die hard locals who have toughed it out with him, and the tapping of his own feet. The light will continue to shine as long as it takes complete the Marathon.

In the background the parking lot is blasting with beautiful music – but not from a stereo. James’ girls and the crew have pulled an impromptu dance party, bumping away, under a street lamp, to the beat of their feet and the melodic roar of their own synchronized voices.

It’s going to be a late night. Why not make it one worth remembering?

I look and listen and analyze what I sense all around me: the energy, the sacrifice, the conviction, the determination, the extreme agony softened by fierce love and unspeakable gratitude for life. For me at least, it is a moment that I will not soon forget.

Riding Shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Massachusetts

MA 8James smiled as he came to the end of the Rhode Island Marathon last night. It was a good day. There was great support, a great turnout, and a  fast run. Had this campaign been a World Record attempt (which is was not),  he would have  broken the World Record for the most consecutive Ironman distance triathlons ever carried out. The current record was set in Lake Garda, Italy at 30 consecutive Ironmans.  If everything goes well in the next 3 hours, this unofficial record will be broken yet again tonight and will stand at 32. For James to successfully carry out his mission of accomplishing all 50, he will unofficially have to set a new world record, every day, for the next 17 days.

We rolled out of Rhode Island as Monday was turning into Tuesday. I was stoked that James had had such a great day, but I was exhausted. “How is this even possible?” I asked myself, already knowing the answer, but not wanting to accept that I could be this broken after just a few days. The struggle has to do with not having enough stress hormones circulating in my system yet. Over the past few months, I’ve had a pretty regular training program with consistent sleep and minor stresses. As the rigors catch up over the next few days, that will change. My stress hormones will increase and my adrenal system will compensate for the changes. I’ll be able to get by on less sleep and I won’t feel like such a zombie. In addition my circadian rhythm will adjust a bit and the jet lag will slough away. Why do they call it that anyway? “Jet lag”. It sounds so unthreatening. What I felt last night was beyond “lag”. It was more like “Jet – That moment in Rocky IV when Ivan Drago (AKA The Siberian Express, AKA The Siberian Bull, AKA Death From above) steps up to touch gloves with Rocky Balboa but instead says, “I must break you.” and then he does break you. That’s what it felt like. If only there was a single world to articulate such a concept. Somebody asks, “Hey what’s wrong? You look really tired.” To which you respond, “Oh it’s nothing, just a little bit of ‘Jet – Ivan Drago I break you’. It’ll pass in a couple of days.”

Lundgren_Ivan_Drago

The swim course in Massachusetts was held at Indian lake in Worcester – not pronounced the way it looks, and also, not to be confused with the sauce. The setting was spectacular – glassy water lined by beautiful homes, surrounded by dense trees.

MA 7James had 3 participants today that were determined to finish the entire 140.6 distance with him. It’s a great help to have the consistent company and it gives him an opportunity to become good friends with new people. Do you want to get to know someone really good? Ask them to accompany you for an entire Ironman distance triathlon. That’ll do the trick. The extra support was helpful especially considering that James had to make an impromptu wardrobe change halfway through the swim. The water was a little bit too nice, and the warmth required him to strip out of his wetsuit and into his speedo while in the middle of the lake – not an easy task. All of the swans that were spectating, turned their heads and blushed.

old_stone_church_2474-1 (2)

After a quick breakfast for the Iron Cowboy, we mounted our faithful steeds and rode the 25 miles out of Worcester to the Nashua River Rail Trail in Ayer. On the way we crossed a bridge over Wachusett Reservoir. As I glanced to the left I saw the Old Stone Church with an enormous American Flag draped down the front. It was a symbol of hope, solidarity, and fortitude – a perfect representation of the wonderful people in this rugged area and the indomitable strength they collectively possess.MA 1We rolled into Ayer and onto the Rail Trail – a smooth asphalt path that cuts a straight course through the thick, verdant forest.  The group of riders was experienced and selfless, which allowed us to maintain a quick pace and a collective focus on James. Every few miles the path crossed a small road with a cross walk. Without any cue, one of the riders would burst off the front of the peloton as if in an aggressive attack to make a break in the final kilometers of a major road race. They would sprint to get a solid 30 meters on the group and then slow down as they approached the road. They would then yell back to the group to communicate if the path was clear, allowing us to cruise through without having to hit the brakes.  After the cross walk, they would then sprint back up to the pack and we would keep rolling along. This allowed James to save valuable time and energy by not being required to brake, lose his momentum and then have to struggle to get back up to speed. We took a brief stop for the local news station to get an interview. After James gave a brief explanation of what he was doing, the camera operator gave a bewildered look, scratched his chin and said,”Wait… you’re doing what?!”

112 miles is always long. You learn a lot about the riders around you in that amount of time. There are moments of silence and moments of comical laughter. The conversation can be deep, spiritual, and existential in one moment, and quickly digress into junior high quality bathroom humor the very next moment. With about 20 miles to go, the sky opened up and dumped in an all out downpour.

MA 2We charged into the rain and relished the primal oneness that exists in moments like this. There is a unity that emerges as the elements collide and you find yourself suspended in the middle. As we pushed the pace, James and I sang every Garth Brooks song we could think at the top of our lungs. The rain continued to fall as we transitioned seamlessly into “Don’t take the girl” by Tim McGraw. Mud from the tires in front of us kicked up and speckled our fronts and our faces. An identical pattern peppered our backs. After a couple of verses James stopped singing but I kept going.  I figured he had forgotten the words, but when I turned and glanced over at him I saw that he was choked up. The rain had stopped falling. Tears welled up in his eyes, and threatened to fall and leave streaks down his muddy face. His mind was elsewhere –thinking about his family.

James absolutely adores his family. There is nothing in this world that means more to him than his lovely wife and his 5 beautiful children. He can hardly talk about them without choking up. A large portion of a day in the life of the Iron Cowboy consists of people coming up to James and telling him how incredible his family is. He smiles and thanks them for their kind words, but it is nothing he doesn’t already know. He does what he does for them. They are at the heart of all of it. This is as much a mission, and as much an accomplishment for each of them as it is for James. This is their goal, their campaign, their success. Anybody who speculates otherwise – well first of all, how dare you.  Second: shame on you. And third: come spend a day with the Iron Cowboy and his family and you will see firsthand that it is indeed possible to be an incredible endurance athlete and a loving, supportive, involved husband and father. A few nights ago we were in Connecticut. It was a long, extremely hard day for James. So hard that he questioned whether he had the emotional resolve to keep going. A group of us were headed out onto the run to try to get in a few miles with James before the Iron Cowboy 5k. As we exited the home base area at Swim Seventy, James saw his baby boy – 5 year old Quinn- sitting on the curb with tears in his eyes. Quinn is an amazing little thunderbolt of a child. He is full of imagination and energy. He is kind and loving to his older sisters.  James approached little Quinn and squatted down next to him – a task that is actually much harder for James than it seems because of his overworked adductors which tend to seize up if he bends down at all. I would say that James seamlessly took off his Iron Cowboy hat and replaced it with the hat he wears as Quinn’s father, but that isn’t accurate. In becoming the Iron Cowboy, James never relinquished his role as daddy to his 5 little beauties and husband to his lovely Sunny. Quinn was upset because his toy airplane wasn’t working like it was supposed to. James wiped away Quinn’s tears and rubbed his back. There was no fan fare. There was no act. There wasn’t a camera rolling or a crowd watching his every move. It was just a tiny example of who James is and why he does what he does. At far as he was concerned in that moment, he and Quinn were the only two people in the entire world. It wasn’t until he knew his little boy was ok that he turned to face his escort group and lead the way back out onto the course.

The work of the peloton allowed us to get out early and put in a solid 10 miles before the beginning of the Iron Cowboy 5k. We ran a steady pace and were joined by several new faces. The energy was electric and propelled James forward.

MA 3

There was a huge turnout for the 5k and excitement and inspiration seemed to hover in the air. James headed out to complete the final 13 miles as the sun began to set. The sky shifted from a pale blue to a bright pink that melded into orange as it settled on the dense trees all around.

MA4James was joined by a dozen other runners. Three of the runners – Simon, Billy, and Greg, had spent the entire day at James’ side. They formed a tight unity throughout the day – a solidarity that is forged through the shared agony and group cooperation necessary to carry out the task. They rallied with James and pushed him to the fastest Marathon yet – 15 minutes faster than any of the previous 31.MA 5James graciously expressed his appreciation to everyone who had stuck it out with him. Sweaty bodies collided in emotional embraces, high-fives clapped all around, and battle cries filled the air.

MA6

It was an emotional high for James and everyone present. It seemed surreal that this was taking place on this, the 32nd consecutive Ironman distance triathlon. Tonight, James and his family set a new benchmark for the physical, emotional and mental limits of humanity.  

Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Rhode Island

RI 2The lightning bugs worked overtime last night, keeping the Iron Cowboy’s path illuminated until just before midnight. It was a long, hard day for James. James is incredible. He is as tough and as stoic of any individual as I have ever met. But let’s get one thing perfectly clear – these days DO NOT come easy for him. It is not possible to complete an easy Ironman distance triathlon for anyone, under any circumstance – not to mention consecutive days in different states. James has low points. He hurts, just like anyone else. He gets tired. He gets frustrated. His body runs low on fuel and that changes his outlook and perspective on the world around him. He needs sleep just like anybody else. His joints hurt, his feet blister and his skin burns. His body requires water, oxygen, and a steady supply of nutrients to carry out its physiological needs – just like everybody else. The only difference between James and anybody else, it that James decided a long time ago, that he was not going to quit. Ever.  Last night proved that yet again.

As James finished the Connecticut marathon, he thanked those who had accompanied him on the run, and took the time to get pictures with each of them. As he slowly walked into the locker room at Norwalk Connecticut’s Swim Seventy, he turned to me and said,

“That was really hard man. I don’t know how I’m gonna get through another 20 of those”.

I could see in his weary eyes that he was serious. Connecticut had tested his will to finish what he started. I responded with some piece of generic advice:

“You’ll be fine man, just get some food and get some sleep. Think about tomorrow in the morning. Just take it one day at a time.”

He nodded his head and walked towards a hot shower.

As we drove to Rhode Island, Brittany and I worked hard massaging James’ legs -although neither of us is actually a massage therapist. (We do have a bit of experience though – I’m in the process of becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy, and Brittany, who currently works in James’ home Chiropractic clinic is preparing to become a massage therapist). Anyways, I was tired. Really tired. But how can you even let the sensation register when you are working on an individual who is in the process of completing 50 Ironman distance triathlons, in 50 consecutive days, while traveling to 50 different states– and only on a few hours of sleep a night?  I tried to shake the sleepiness and focus on James. As I yawned and shook my head, Sunny (James is Sunny’s husband) looked up at me and told me I should get some sleep. “I’m fine.” I said, and kept working.  A couple of minutes later I rested my head against the back of the futon and in a state of half consciousness  wondered to myself, “If I focus really hard- would it be possible to sleep for a few moments and still be able to keep massaging James’ hamstring?” That’s the last thing I remember thinking before waking up to a rising sun, in a different bed in the motor home, parked in front of a beach in Rhode Island.

RHODE ISLAND

RI 3James was met by a large group of locals on a Pier labeled #5 (“Number” not “Hashtag”). I asked one of the people what the name of the town was. I’m not quite sure what I heard, but when I typed what I thought they had said into my phone, the results said, “Did you mean Mazaratti?” “I don’t think so?” I thought to myself. It turns out we were in Narragansett. James and his local escorts moved into the water and began the swim. They were lead on a stand-up paddle board by local Iron Cowboy Ambassador Kathy Robbins. I watched them swim smoothly through the cool water as I walked along the rocky shore and tried to finish waking up. I stepped on a smooth black rock and suddenly tripped as the rock  shifted beneath me. I looked down and realized that the rock had grown a stubby tail and had a set of wiggling legs on its underside. I reached down and picked up the basketball sized prehistoric looking creature.  A group of locals glanced over and met my bewildered eyes with their own combination of humor and disbelief. “What? You never seen a Horse Shoe crab before?” they asked. “They don’t have those in Utah?”they continued.  I just shrugged and smiled but thought to myself, “I’m not from Utah, but…nope. Last time I checked Utah was fresh out of Horse Shoe crabs.”

“Welcome to Rhode Island!” another one joked, as they all erupted into laughter. I just blushed and smiled again. Its kinda my default when I feel embarrassed.  “Rhode Island,” I thought to myself. “Pfff…it’s not even an island. It’s more of like a peninsula -except everyone knows that it would sound silly if it was called Rhode Peninsula”. I looked at the crab and rubbed the top of his shell. “Sorry for stepping on your face bro”, I said, before dropping him back into the water. He didn’t respond.

I changed into my wetsuit and joined Brittany as she swam out to meet James and his pod of swimmers – including Wingman extraordinaire, and armature dancer Casey, who was spending his birthday morning by swimming the full distance with James.  The water was cold on my bare head and visibility was about to the end of my extended arm.  I instantly thought of sharks. I hate the fact that that’s the first thing that comes to mind when I swim in the ocean, but it is. I wished I hadn’t read the news about the attacks in the Carolinas just a few weeks ago. I know we are a long distance from there but Sharks are good swimmers. Who knows? Maybe they headed up to Rhode Peninsula for Independence day? I tried not to think about it but made sure that I stayed just a few feet closer to shore than Brittany. She is a really nice lady, and James is sure thankful for her willingness to work on his exhausted muscles, but it provided a bit of comfort knowing that  if there was a hungry shark in the area, my chances of being breakfast had just been reduced. Thanks Brittany.

We met James and his pod as they moved back toward the pier. There was a group of close to 10 of us. “Even less likely to be breakfast now,” I thought.  RI 4James was met by a great group of cyclists as he ate his breakfast. They took him out onto a beautiful course that passed many of the scenic areas of the region. After one loop they moved to a flat road for a long out and back. That’s where things started to unravel a bit. First,  James had a pedal break, but that  was quickly replaced and the ride resumed. Then, Rick Clark, one of the local cyclists, had a bad crash. Rick hit a large piece of debris on the road and went down hard. He was taken to the local hospital and imaging verified a broken clavicle and three broken ribs. James avoided the crash but was shaken up out of concern for Rick. Thank you Rick for taking the time and effort to push James along today. We all wish you a speedy recovery.  Casey had been out there for the first half of the bike course, but after Rick went down, he opted out of the rest of the distance so that he could visit Rick in the hospital.RI 5I joined the cycling group at that point and we headed for a long, straight road to put in the last 60 miles or so. We had a solid group of around 10 riders. The temperature felt much lower than yesterday in Connecticut, and the road was smooth and fast. James was feeling good and it was easy to joke and smile throughout. It just goes to show that you can be knocked down one minute, and then back on top the very next. Well, maybe more like 12 hours later.RI 6

We finished the bike and were able to get in 8 miles on the run before the 7:00 pm Iron Cowboy 5k. We ran a consistent pace with a small group who had come out early to join James. He drank down a liter of coconut water in the process.

RI 8

When 7:00 pm rolled around, James was met by another huge group of supporters for the 5k.  It was so great to see the response – families came out together to run alongside James. One man walked out his front door and stood on the curb watching as a huge mass of runners passed. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Its James Lawrence The Iron Cowboy. You have to Google it!” a stout runner proudly responded, through short, struggling gasps. The moment was sheer beauty. It was a perfect example of our true essence as human beings. This runner was a man inspired by James, who had come out to make powerful changes in his life. That is what we do as humans. That is at the core of our shared humanity. We are fluid, organic, evolving, changing beings. We are not defined by our past but empowered by our abilities to decide our futures. We have the power to change our lives. We can make decisions that will alter our course and change it for the better.  We can do it today. It is difficult. It requires consistent, daily effort, but it is possible – and its worth it. I learned that again today as I watched Iron Cowboy James battle through another 140.6 miles. If you have the desire to make changes in your life, do it. Do it for yourself. Do it for someone you love. Do it for someone who loves you. Make a goal. Build a plan based on that goal, and set out to do it. Take baby steps and don’t stop until you have accomplished what you set out to do. That’s what James does. That’s what makes him great.

You can do it too.

 

 

Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Connecticut

Connecticut 1It’s been a couple of years since James told me about his plans to complete 50 Ironman distance triathlons in 50 days, one in each state. I was impressed, but I hadn’t really delved into ultra endurance distances enough to fully put his goal into context.  To be honest, I still haven’t. In all reality there are really only a handful of people in the entire world who have any context for what James is in the process of accomplishing.

James Flagstaff

James came through Flagstaff on day 7 and I had the chance to ride the bike course beside him. As we talked, I was blown away by his resolve. I don’t think I have ever met anyone so determined to finish anything – ever. His unrelenting drive, in combination with his incredible family and crew made a believer out of me. Was it even physically possible for a human to accomplish such a feat? I don’t know. Was James and his crew going to do it anyway? Hell yes.

I had hoped to join James and his crew sooner, but school kept me away. Yesterday though, I bid my lovely wife Steph and our two little darlings good bye and set out to meet up with the Iron Cowboy team. For the next 20 days, I’ll be following along as James finishes his epic quest.

Last night I flew into New Jersey, where number 29 was underway, and quickly set out to meet the team on the Jersey shore. I had thought that the overly dramatized television series was fiction, but as we drove along the coast, I came to the realization that it is indeed real – in all of it’s glorious splendor. I had never seen such well groomed men – a stark contrast from the rugged mountain town I had just left. As we pulled in to meet the team, James was already well into the run. The smiling faces,  he and Sunny’s adorable strawberry blond kids, the fireworks blazing in the distance, and the vigorous cheers in the distinct Jersey accent  all came together to form the perfect backdrop for the unbelievable feat being carried out. In a short time, head lamps appeared in the darkness and quickly materialized into James and his escort of runners who seemed to effortlessly glide as they finished the Marathon. There was a whirl of flashes as excited locals took their turn to get a picture with the Iron Cowboy. He expressed his sincere gratitude to each one. In a matter of minutes James was in a hotel room. He quietly said, in a grateful tone, “I need three things – A massage, an IV, and food.” Just like that, his cheerful crew sprung into action and each one of those needs were met. When the IV bag was drained, everybody piled into the motor home and did their best to get a few hours of sleep, while the wingmen – who simply don’t sleep – aimed the headlights in the direction of the next destination: Connecticut.

I awoke to the sound of Casey (one of the trusty wingmen) preparing breakfast for James. When it was ready he leaned down and gently pressed his hand onto James’ inner thigh. Casey knew James’ adductors were incredibly sore and one touch would be enough to wake the giant from his deep slumber. Just like that, everyone rolled out of bed and number 30 was underway.

Connecticut 3

The swim was held at Norwalk’s “Swim Seventy” – a beautiful new facility with a friendly staff and a clean, modern feel. Outside it was shaping up to be a warm one. After a second breakfast, James was on the bike and out onto the roads –joined by an avid group of local cyclists on the first of four 28 miles loops. After just the first loop it was clear that James needed something different. The course was stunningly beautiful -cruising along side beaches, crossing bridges, skirting famous gold courses – but there was lots of traffic, lots of up and downs, and lots of stop and go. He was only able to average 14.9 mph. At that rate, it would take 8 hours to complete the distance. We talked amongst the group of riders and decided to head inland. Although there would likely be more hills, we would be able to find a stretch of road without stops and hopefully make better time. After another hour or so it was clear that this wasn’t a better option. Connecticut is rugged. It is hilly and today it was hot and humid. It felt more like a tropical island than the North East I had imagined all of my life. James and his peloton eventually chose to return back to the coast and finished out the distance with several short, relatively flat loops.Connecticut 2When James pulled back into the crew’s pit stop it was focused graciousness. He ate food, drank fluids, welcomed supporters, changed his clothes and then hit the road again – this time in running shoes.  He focused on putting down fluids as he maintained a steady pace and was able to complete just under 7 miles before the planned Iron Cowboy 5k at 7:00pm.  He pulled into the rendezvous and was met by an excited crowd of participant who cheered wildly. James gave a welcoming speech and then just as quickly as he approached, he lead the group back out onto the streets. As the end of the 5k distance, the group circled and James gave a few words of inspiration. He thanked everyone for all of their support, and restating his intention of fighting childhood obesity; he expressed his determination to finish what he had started.

Dusk was setting in as James once again hit the road – 16 more miles – the flashing light on his back quickly became indistinguishable from the lightning bugs that began to light up the darkening sky.

@tommy_rivs

Mountains

Chirripo

What do the mountains mean to you?

I feel at home in the mountains.  It is where I find solace. Henry David Thoreau said,  “Methinks that the moment my legs began to move, my thoughts began to flow.” I don’t know what the connection is, but as you begin to move, your mind is opened.  You are able to view the world through alternate perspectives and are given fleeting glimpses into different realms of reality. You come to realize that there is a unity that exists – a connection between the human and natural world. You realize that you are not a visitor in an unknown place, but rather at home. You are a part of it, and it is a part of you. It is a sacred connection. Anatoli Boukreev said, “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” When you enter into the solitude of the mountains, the distractions of the modern world seem to disappear. The chaos of your own life is organized, and there is a cleansing and a renewal that takes place.

In the mountains, although I am often putting forth huge efforts, I never view it as work. I never think, “I’ll go put in 300 minutes.” I think instead, “I have 5 hours to go play”. It is not a chore. I start out easy, enjoying what is around me. If I feel like running faster I do. If I don’t feel like running faster, I don’t. I don’t quantify it. I don’t look at a watch, or a heart rate monitor, or a gps. I just run. If I feel like stopping, I stop. If I get hungry, I eat. If I find something beautiful, I stop and look at it.

In the mountains you learn lessons about life, about cosmology, about the universe and your role in it. You learn very quickly that pain and struggle is the price you pay for satisfaction and joy. It is the law of the harvest- you reap what you sow. It makes you want to live in harmony with everything around you.  It makes me want to be kinder, more compassionate, more giving, and more accepting.

– How does the road and the mountain complement each other?

The road is where I try to make a living, but the mountains are where my heart and soul live. Essentially, the road is where I work, but the mountains are where I go to rest.

– How do you see yourself in 20 years?

Not much will change. I’ll spend less time working on the roads, and more time resting in the mountains with my family. My beautiful wife and I have two little girls. We will probably have a couple more by then.

I will continue to coach. I love to help people work through their challenges and reach their goals. My goal is to help others learn to love it. On a wall at home I have the words of José Martí. They remind me of the process. “Todo es hermoso y constante, Todo es música y razón, Y todo, como el diamante, Antes que luz es carbón.” (“All is beautiful and right – All is as music and reason – And all, like diamonds, is light -That was coal before its season.”)

The path is a struggle at times, but it is also full of wonder and joy. A balance is needed. To be successful requires hard work. There is pain. There is heat. There is pressure. But if you are willing to work, and allow your body and mind to slowly, consistently adapt and progress, you will become transformed into something new, something great, something powerful, something beautiful.

 

*Adapted from an interview with David Clavera for Corredordemontana.

http://corredordemontana.com/index.php/actualidad/item/ninety-eight-percent-of-success-is-in-the-head-and-the-heart-an-interview-with-tommy-rivers

 

Men of the Mountain

chirripo with Harp

Costa Rica

In our first year of marriage, Steph was accepted into a Master’s program at “La Universidad Para La Paz” – a United Nations University in Costa Rica that focuses on conflict studies. The same week she received her letter of acceptance, we found out she was pregnant. I was in the middle of my undergraduate studies and was on a running scholarship. We decided the opportunity for her to study her passion- media and conflict -at a university like this would not come again, so she enrolled. I took a year off of school and a red shirt year from collegiate running.  With Steph 6 months pregnant, we moved from the jungles of Hawaii to the jungles of Costa Rica. After our little daughter was born, I played “stay at home dad” while Steph attended classes.

Any time that I wasn’t at home with our daughter, I spent running through the jungle trails of the mountains that surrounded our home on all sides. Leaving Hawaii, I traded mongoose for spider monkeys, and egrets for toucans. I still hungered to race and quickly became involved in Costa Rica’s highly organized running community. I traveled around much of the little country competing on the road and in the mountains. On the road I was competitive – I seemed to hold my own against almost anybody in the country, but when it came to the mountain races, or what the Ticos called “campo traviessa”, I got destroyed. I became intrigued. I knew the other competitors weren’t training harder than me – that’s all I did. I began to investigate what they were doing that gave them such great power in the mountains.

Part of my Univeristy studies were in anthropology so naturally, I looked at the mountain racing scene through an ethnographic lens. I began to analyze everything I saw and write about it.

There is a particular race in the southern mountains of the country known as La Carrera International de Chirripo. In the eyes of the mountain running Tico’s, this is the only race that matters.  It is like the Boston Marathon of Costa Rica. This 20 mile race up and back down the tallest mountain in the country is all anybody ever talks about. I trained specifically for 6 months with this race in mind, thinking that I could compete with the country’s best and write about it from the perspective of the front pack.

Race day arrived in the beautiful little pueblito of San Gerardo de Rivas. I lined up with several hundred other athletes. I was easy to pick out- I was the only gringo, and my long beard quickly earned me the nickname “Barba Roja”. The gun fired and we were off. I quickly joined the front pack as we ran through the dirt streets of the little town and then sharply turned uphill and began to switchback up the mountain. I immediately felt the effects of the fast pace at high altitude. I didn’t last a single kilometer. The lead pack quickly disappeared around a sharp turn as they seemed to glide effortlessly up the steep trail.  I was in survival mode before the race had even started.

I finished close to four hours later in 24th place, 45 minutes behind the winner. I was crushed. I didn’t know whether I wanted to train like a mad man, or just give up. I had been training my whole life and had trained specifically for this race for 6 months. All of that preparation and I didn’t even come close.

I quickly changed roles from runner to anthropologist. Armed with a pen and a small pad of paper, I walked around the finishing area, hunting down every single runner who had beaten me. I asked about their diet, their lifestyle, their strategy going into the race. When I finally asked about training most of them looked at me with bewilderment in their eyes. “Training?” they asked back. “We don’t train”. They said.

I thought they must not have understood. “Entrenamiento,” I repeated, confident that my Spanish was correct. “What do you do for training?” They each responded, “We don’t train”.  This time I was the one who was confused. In a combination of bewilderment and frustration I thought, “If you don’t train, then explain yourself.  See, all I do is train. How is it that you just beat me by 45 minutes in a 20 mile race when you don’t even train?” Of course my question was stated more like, “Well, if you don’t train, how do you run so fast?” They each responded in their own way, saying, “We don’t have time to train. There is too much work to do.”  Within my next question lay the answer to this bizarre mystery. “What do you do for work then?” I asked one of the runners.

“I am a portero.

“Porter?” I thought. “What is a portero?” I asked.

Por-te-ro” he repeated, slowly this time, a bit louder and with more enunciation, as if maybe then I would understand.

“We climb the mountain,” he said, motioning with his head toward the mountain that had just destroyed me. “We carry the gear for the tourists who are going to climb it each day. We climb during the night so that it is there waiting for them when they make it to the top. Then we run back down.”

“We?” I asked.

“All of us.” He responded, motioning to most of the men in the finish area who I had just been beaten by.

“You climb the mountain every night?” I thought to myself in disbelief. “Then what?” I asked.

“Then we work of course”. He replied.

“Work?” I asked, as if climbing 6000 vertical feet over 10 miles with someone else’s luggage and then running back down all before 8 am wasn’t work enough.

“Café” He responded, motioning with his head toward the coffee farms that rose up the steeply terraced mountains all around us.

“Coffee.” I replied, more to myself than to anyone else.“Then you work in the coffee. Of course you do.”

When I left San Gerardo, I could think of little else. My wife finished classes in early spring. After a little convincing, the two of us and our baby girl moved to the tiny village of San Gerardo. I spent the first couple of weeks going from house to house and offering my services for whatever anybody needed help with. I worked on the farms and in the gardens. It didn’t take long to become familiar with residents – there were only a couple hundred of them. In the evenings our little family would walk down the hill to the town center and watch pick-up soccer games. On Sunday mornings, we would attend mass. I had soon become friends with many of the porters who had destroyed me when we raced up and down the mountain several months before. When it was determined that I had good intentions, I was welcomed into the tight-knit group of porters and began to help port tourist’s luggage up the mountain each night and then run back down as the sun was coming up.

The time in those mountains, accompanied by many strong, wise men, had a lasting effect on me. We would leave at 2:00 am and hike, mostly in silence for the first couple of hours, by the light of the moon. The porters were strong and quick on their feet. Their gait was fast and their rhythm consistent. Throughout the journey we would talk and joke. I mainly just tried to catch my breath. My lungs, legs and back burned as we climbed up above 12,000ft. I could hear my heartbeat- it sounded like a drum in my ears. It was torturous, but I loved every agonizing minute of it. The porters couldn’t understand why someone would do this voluntarily. I couldn’t understand how anyone would prefer a desk job if this was an option. Over the weeks I gradually grew stronger, but my legs ached almost all the time.  One night I asked one of the older porters if the legs ever stopped hurting. He thought for a moment, and then wisely replied with complete sincerity, “Yes, eventually they stop hurting – usually after a year or so”.

I ported through the summer. I knew that I would need to resume my role as leader of our Cross Country team back at the university in a few short weeks, but during those months on the mountain  I had stopped any kind of organized training. All I did was port. I was lean and strong, but I had put on a lot of muscle weight in my legs and back. I didn’t know how all of it would affect my running. On the day before we had to leave San Gerardo, I did a time trial over the same exact course as I had run several months before. I was a different person. The mountain had changed me. I charged up the steep trail that by then I knew so well, and after reaching the top, glided back down. The same climbs that had crippled me just a few months earlier were now a part of me. They had strengthened my blood, expanded my lungs and hardened my muscles.  When I crossed the finish line at the bottom I looked at my watch. I covered the same course 30 minutes faster than I had when I first came to San Gerardo to race. I had replaced my specially designed training regimen for a life that consisted only of porting up and down the mountain every night. The experience changed my whole view on what was considered fitness and on how to become unbeatable in the mountains. Most importantly it taught me to love and respect that space.

I addition, I learned that there is not only one right way to do things. My strength in the mountains came as a result of porting, not from sticking to a specific training program. The porters that I worked with never even considered their work to be training. It was a matter of perspective. I noticed that the rigors of their daily lives, although physically draining, did not seem to drain them emotionally. They eliminated the stress that comes from the element of choice.  They didn’t question whether they were going to work or not. It was just part of their life. They didn’t analyze how they had done – they just did it. There was no value system based on effort or exertion or how long they had “embraced the burn”. They didn’t reflect on how they had pushed their bodies into new levels of agony, or analyze how high they had gotten their heart rate before they had reached their breaking point. To them it was simple – they either completed the task, or they didn’t. The pack either made it to the top of the mountain in time for the tourists to arrive, or it didn’t. If they completed the job they got paid. If not, they didn’t. If they doddled on the way back down, the day would be spent by the time they made it to the bottom. If they ran, they would have a full day to work in the coffee.  The porters enjoyed the camaraderie that existed among them.  They viewed the task not as punishment, but rather, as an opportunity to work to provide for their families. For that reason they looked at the mountain with gratitude for what it gave them, rather than with disdain for what it required from them.

I have tried to apply these same concepts to my training and my life in general. Rather than thinking quantitatively, I think rather about having the opportunity to play in the forest, or climb a mountain. I don’t look at a watch, I just climb until I get to the top and then enjoy the view and the satisfaction that comes from making it there. I try to avoid training situations that deplete my emotional energy. I work hard, but I don’t get down on myself if a workout didn’t go great. I am flexible and adapt my training to make that work.  If I have a hard tempo run planned and I wake up to cold wind and rain and I can feel that it will take a lot of emotional energy to get out the door and finish the workout, I don’t do it. I still get in the workout, but I adjust my training and do it on a different day that will give me an enjoyable, positive experience.  When it comes time to race, physiologically it will have made any difference one way or the other, but I will have reserved the emotional energy necessary to really suffer.

It is my belief that Endurance athletes tend to complicate the process too much. They typically waste 99% of their emotional energy focusing on things that will make 1% of a difference on race day. To me it’s not that complicated. Put in the time. Train hard. Rest often. Eat clean. Love the process. Race when you’re ready and then fight like hell.

 

How it all began

Hawaii Run

I have loved to run ever since I was a little kid. My very first memory was in elementary school. I was 7 years old at the time. Our teacher wanted us to run a mile on a course that she had set up outside in the grass. I ran as hard as I could from the moment she said “Go”. It was cold and I remember that I wasn’t wearing a jacket. My arms were freezing and my whole body screamed in pain but I couldn’t stop. The more it hurt, the harder I pushed.  It made me feel alive. When I crossed the finish line I wanted to keep running but my teacher stopped me. She looked at her watch and told me that I had just run 6 minutes and 20 seconds for the mile. I had no idea what that meant. I asked if I could keep going. She said no. I stood there with my hands on the top of my head as she directed because she said it would help me get my “wind” back. I didn’t know what one’s “wind” was but I did what she told me and waited for my class mates to finish. I remember feeling my heart pounding. I looked down and I could actually see it moving through my t-shirt.  I asked my teacher, “What is that feeling in my chest?” She looked at me with a startled glance and replied, “What feeling?” “Right here”, I said, putting my hand on the center of my rib cage, “That burning feeling. It feels like my whole body is on fire”. She looked even more startled and scolded, “You need to be careful. You probably ran too hard. Running is dangerous if you don’t know how to pace yourself.” I didn’t know what that that meant either. I didn’t know what to say, I just stood there with my hand on my chest, looking at my beating heart and feeling my lungs heave in and out. I finally looked up at her face and met her concerned eyes with my own, “That burning feeling, the fiery one…I love it”.

Norditalia

I kept running. It just seemed like the natural thing to do. I grew up in the state of Oregon where Steve Prefontaine had been raised and where he established an expectation of training with grit and racing with guts. By the time I was 12, or 13 I had pictures of him and quotes all over my wall. He was like a legend. I read stories about him, and analyzed old film of him racing. I idolized the man. In an attempt to revamp the Americas distance running program, Nike put out a campaign that asked “Where is the next Pre?” It felt like a prophecy. As a young kid, hungry to prove myself, I sincerely thought the prophecy was about me. I read everything I could about him. Pre ran before school, so I started to run before school. All through winter, I woke up far before the sun and ran for miles on the farm roads around my little town. In my mind I saw myself winning races, breaking records, and eventually running in the Olympics. After school I would run again. It was only a matter of time, I thought. I was focused, and hungry.

I continued to dream and train to make those dreams a reality, but lack of experience and lack of maturity often lead to overtraining and injury. I thought I was going to be great. I honestly believed I was going to win every race I ever entered. Even though that meant going up against guys like Galen Rupp. It turned out that the prophecy was actually about him.

I went to college in Hawaii and began to develop a love for the mountains and the ocean. I was a poor college student.  In the mornings I would run up into the mountains and eat as much fruit as I could pick -mango, papaya, guava, and passion fruit.  I would bring back as much as I could fit in my hands and pockets for the day. In the afternoons, I would go out into the ocean and spearfish for dinner. If I got something, I would have fish with my rice. If I didn’t, I would just eat rice. I noticed that I felt something different on those long runs in the mountains. It was as if I was returning home to some place that I had left long ago. It felt familiar, and comfortable. It made me feel alive and free. It cleared my mind and allowed my soul to breathe.
From time to time, the volume of training required to be successful at a high level would take a toll on my body. I was plagued with overuse injuries. Each time I got injured, I would take my bike and try to bury my frustration and disappointment by cycling for hours at a time. The more I got injured, the more I biked. Eventually I began to enjoy the time I spent cycling and when I showed up for some local group rides, I realized that I might actually be good at it. I started to race a little bit and approached it with the same brash mentality that had given me some success in running. My first real sponsors were actually for cycling and not running. I always returned to running as soon as I could, but I eventually found that balanced training for my body required time on the bike and time running. I eventually worked swimming into the mix. This gave me the opportunity to put in the aerobic volume needed for success, while reducing the risk of injury.