Badwater 135: Death Valley, Morocco, and The Iron Cowboy

Photo by Alessandro Beltrame
Photo by Alessandro Beltrame

I stumbled off the airplane in Las Vegas and moved towards the exit. I sensed someone looming behind me and turned around to see Iron Cowboy James Lawrence, a giant of a man who actually is a bit shorter than me in real life. He had landed a few minutes earlier and had been watching for me so that he could take this opportunity to sneak up behind me and just creep really hard until I noticed him.  His efforts were successful.

Photo by @tommy_rivs
Photo by @tommy_rivs

It had been almost a year since I had last seen him – in Utah, after spending the previous 3 weeks with him as he completed 50 Ironman distance Triathlons in 50 days, one in every state. In the final days of that campaign we talked about how his mission to become a powerful agent for positive change in the world was only now beginning. The 50/50/50 campaign had done nothing more than build his podium of influence – the real work lay ahead. Over the last year he has shown that he was up for the challenge as he has since worked tirelessly to affect positive change, inspiring, motivating, guiding, and teaching others to first see and then work towards their true potentials.JAmes LawrenceWe hugged. “Cool Sunday clothes bro.” I said, mocking his formal attire on the way to such a rugged event. “Shut up dude. I left straight from a motivational speech to the Airport. I didn’t have time to change.”

www.thespectrum.com
www.thespectrum.com

It was good to see him again – this time his eyes had life in them and his cheekbones protruded a little less than a year ago. Both of our flights had been delayed several hours, so we grabbed the rental car and raced towards Death Valley for the start of Badwater 135 – the hardest ultramarathon in the world. (I kinda feel like they all say that, but whatev…)  It was there that the rest of our unlikely team would be waiting for us: Linda Sanders, founder and director of “Hope So Bright”, an organization who provides financial support to community nonprofit organizations providing programs and services to disadvantaged, under-served and at-risk youth. The Organization uses Endurance athletics as a platform to draw attention to the causes they champion. Italian Alessandro Beltrame was along for the trip as well – a world renowned videographer who would be documenting the adventure, and Mohammed Ahansal, the 5 time Marathon des Sables winner from Morocco and the man who James and I hoped to pace to Victory in his very first attempt at Badwater 135.

“I’m starving.” James said as we weaved in and out of traffic, doing our best to make up the 3 hour deficit the delays had added. “Me too.” I responded. “We should probably eat some food before this thing starts.” We looked in vain for something that would work but eventually resigned to the fact that we had already passed all the options. There was no time to turn back, as we were already very late and we would absolutely miss the mandatory pre-race check-in of all racers and crew.

We pulled into the only option available – a Jack in the Box/Gas Station minimart.  “Welp… guess this is it.” I instantly thought of Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, two veterans of the Ultra Endurance world, and two highly respected advocates of a fully plant based, or vegan diet. “What would Scott or Rich eat?” I asked myself, looking desperately for some high calorie plant based options. As we sped away I looked down at my choices and was glad neither of them were there to see the spread. Dinner would be 4 crispy cream donuts and a 7 pack of Jalapeno poppers, washed down with a liter of coke and a mango flavored Powerade. “At least it’s vegan…almost.” I thought to myself, wondering if the cheese in the Jalapeno poppers was actually cheese.

I glanced over and saw a sugar free Rockstar that James had put in his cup holder and a giant burger in his hand, the buttery one.  We both shrugged as we knew that given the circumstances, there wasn’t a better alternative. “You can’t win em all.” I said, sensing the growing burn of Jalapeno all over my mouth and wondering what it would feel like to throw that up just a few hours later.

As we drove, the monochromatic landscape became more and more bleak. The only sign of life was road-killed snakes plastered and dried on the hot asphalt every few miles.  The long expanses of scorched earth and the hot craggy mountains that rose up resembled pictures sent back to earth from Mars expeditions. “What is this place?” I asked aloud as we descended lower and lower, the digital thermometer gradually creeping higher and higher. We tried our best to refresh our French speaking abilities, as we were unsure how much English Mohammed would speak. James has lived for years as a missionary in Paris. I had spent several years of my younger life attempting to master as many languages as possible with the intention of becoming a translator for the UN. That didn’t happen though.

We pulled into the hotel. As we stepped out of the air conditioned car we were instantly hit by scorching hot wind. We exchanged embraces and well wishes with Mohamed, Alessandro, and Linda. We had never met before, but within a few short hours, we would all be family – united in a way that only occurs under the pressure of an intense struggle and a united effort for a common cause.

Just then a ghostly creature emerged from behind the hot rocks and moved effortlessly towards us. It took to a moment but I soon recognized it as the skinniest coyote I had ever seen, its legs, neck and body, long and slender; its hair short and its eyes sunken. The arid desert of Death Valley had caused this beast to become a completely different creature from its thick haired, bulky cousins that roamed the forests around my home in Flagstaff.  It was kinda like the way I looked when standing next to the grizzly Iron Cowboy James.

We drove towards the start at Badwater as the sun sank causing a glow to reflect off of the outline of the mountains and bathe the darkening sky with an orange hue. White bouncing lights and bright red flashers began to appear and lined the side of the road as we drove counter current to the already weary racers who had started in earlier waves. The sky had darkened further and the moon had already begun to rise as we arrived at check in and unloaded from the car. The temperature hovered near 100 degrees F and was only amplified by the howling wind that gusted off of the salt flats. It was definitely salt. To be sure, I conducted a highly reliable, on the spot, scientific experiment by picking up a piece of the dead valley floor and putting it in my mouth. “Yep. Definitely salt.” The salty wind irritated the eyes and made one feel as though they were standing in front of a giant blow drier.

Mohamad calmly prepared himself, drinking small bits and checking his gear. He and the rest of our team walked down to the starting line as the 11:00 pm wave (The elite, and final wave) was called. There was a national anthem and extensive introductions that were carried out as the veterans did their best to stay cool and conserve as much energy as possible – a seemingly impossible feat, as even standing stationary in this heat seemed to zap one of their vital resources. It was fun to see racers and members of other crews recognize James as their eyes analyzed his bearded face, “I know who you are.” On racer said, with a thick London accent. “You’re that f#@*ing crazy bloke who did all those f#@*ing Ironmans.” “Guilty.” James nodded, a combination of flattery and embarrassment on his smiling face.

Photo by Alessandro Beltrame
Photo by Alessandro Beltrame

A brief count down and the runners were off.

We piled into the car and drove past the trail of bouncing lights until the odometer read 2 miles. The rules prohibited actual pacing until mile 42 at Stove Pipe Wells, so until that point, we were limited to jumping out of the car after short intervals, recognizing our runner in the darkness based on the way their head lamp and red flashers danced in response to their own unique running form, and handing off bottles of fluid and handfuls of food.

It was soon past midnight. Everyone took turns starting the contagious cycle of yawning as we tried to convince our bodies that the day was actually just beginning; doing our best to prepare for the next 24 hrs. Linda was a constant – sure and steady in the driver’s seat. Alessandro was machine like – jumping out at each stop and quickly setting up his equipment to masterfully document each exchange. This was not their first rodeo.

The early leaders went out hard. Some were veterans which indicted to me that this was in fact a race, rather than simply a contest of survival. Others were newbies and I wondered how long it would be before they paid for their mistake. Mohammed settled into what he called an “easy pace”. He had stated that he runs best once his muscles are warmed up so he would take it conservative through the night and turn in on as the sun began to rise. It was still nearly 100 degrees out. I wondered how much warmer it would have to get before he decided his muscles were warmed up enough to start racing. But you don’t question the approach of a runner as decorated as Mohammed, so rather than encourage a change in pace, James and I simply did our best to keep him fueled, hydrated, and in good spirits, 2 miles at a time.

Photo by Alessandro Beltrame
Photo by Alessandro Beltrame

The moon began to rise forming shadows and outlines in the mountains that flanked us. “Look at that mountain.” I said to James, as we stood waiting for the dance of Mohamad’s light to emerge. It looks just like that big tube of cookie dough creature thing from Star Wars”. The conversation quickly spiraled into the following:

“Dude you’re right, it totally does.” – James.

“What’s it called?” – Me

“I’m not really a Star Wars guys but I think his name is Jabba the Hutt?” – James

“Job of the Hutt? What even is that?” – Me

“Maybe it’s actually Job in a hut. Like maybe a hut meaning like a coffee shop” –James

“Job in a coffee shop?” – Me

“So he’s a guy who just worked in a coffee shop.” – James

“Like a Barista? Why didn’t they just call him Barista?” – Me

“Doesn’t sound as cool.” – James

“It would have been a lot less confusing.” – Me

“True.” – James

“Anyway, that mountain looks like that barista from Star Wars.” – Me

The night rolled on. The sun slowly began to rise causing a glow that began in the eastern sky and grew gradually until suddenly it was day. We approached Stove Pipe Wells at mile 42 and prepared to actually pace. I hit the restroom before what would likely be a long shift. The water in the toilet was actually steaming. The hot, humid air engulfed my face and fogged up my sunglasses. “Ugh”, I cringed as my dried out skin seemed to suck in the moisture and leave my face smelling like “public restroom essence”. A smell that would likely not do well if bottled and sold as a fragrance. I loaded up on fluids and food and began to run with Mohammed.

Photo by Alessandro Beltrame
Photo by Alessandro Beltrame

Mohammed Ahansal from Morocco, is a 5 time winner of Marathon des Sables. He spent his childhood as a nomad in the Sahara. He is well known in Morocco, having been praised by King Mohammed VI for his performances. Mohammed doesn’t know his exact age, but a doctor once told him that he is probably around 42.

Last night as we drove to the start the topic of his birthday came up. He said he didn’t know the actual date. “Tomorrow will be your birthday then.” we decided, “And after the race, we will definitely celebrate.”

Photo by www.atlasinfo.fr
Photo by www.atlasinfo.fr

We spoke quietly as we ran, in tones that seemed to be governed by the knowledge that there was only a certain amount of energy that could be expended over the next several hours. It was that way with James last year at this time during his 50/50/50 campaign. Even glances from side to side were done slowly, and only if absolutely necessary.

The conversation as we spoke was a combination of English, French, Spanish, and even a bit of Arabic – Mohammad humoring me in my attempts to remember the few lines and phrases I had learned during my very short stint several years ago working in Palestine.

Mohammed stopped to walk a few steps, rubbing his hip and finally reaching for a hot, round, softball sized rock that lay on the side of the road. He pressed it firmly into the area where his quad and glute converged. He had begun to cramp a few miles before. “The Moroccan way.” he said, a smile taking the place of a grimace.

Photo by Alessandro Beltrame
Photo by Alessandro Beltrame

I felt for the guy. He was doing everything he could but circumstances were not ideal. He was running in a brand new pair of Hoka shoes. There is a misconception that maximalist type shoes are able to absorb some of the impact forces inherent in running. This is false. They simply transfer the impact forces further up the kinetic chain i.e., instead of using the feet, ankles, and lower legs to absorb the force (as a lower profile type of shoe would promote) the force is transferred into the quads, hips, glutes and even beyond. This is neither good nor bad, at least not in absolute terms, it is simply different. If an athlete has had issues in either of those respective areas of the kinetic chain, a change might be helpful. Then again it may not. The key is to allow the body to make positive adaptations slowly, according to its own timeline, over a gradual period. It is not a change that the human body can make during a single running session, especially not one that lasts 135 miles and traverses some of the most brutal terrain in the entire world.

The reason for the change in footwear stemmed back to Mohammed’s arrival here in the U.S. Mohammed’s name is… Mohammed. That makes some people in this country uncomfortable. He also recently raced in the country of Iran. In the eyes of TSA this checked two boxes: “Muslim male”, and “Connections with Iran”. Not a great combination considering the current political milieu in the “Land of the Free.” Mohammed was detained and interrogated for 7 hours, and all of his luggage was confiscated, or “lost” requiring him to simply wing it when it came time to suit up for the race. Luckily Linda Sanders is a miracle worker and was able and willing to get him outfitted with the very best. But, it is always difficult to try new shoes or apparel on race day. Mohammed didn’t complain, he simply focused on what he could control and did what he could, at this moment mashing a hot rock into his cramping hip and glutes.

We continued to run over the next 6 hours, Iron Cowboy James jumping out of the crew vehicle every two miles to hand off fresh bottles and food and Alessandro continuing to document.  Mohammed ate a combination of bananas, dates, olives, almonds, and watermelon – all familiar from his desert home, and all perfect for the needs of an endurance athlete in the heat of battle. I thought about the olives in light of the recent fuss that has been made in endurance circles about acetic acid (one of the byproducts of natural olive fermentation) being effective in decreasing muscle cramps by inhibiting the actions of the overactive nerves. It is interesting that olives have been used for millennia as a fuel source in areas of the world where people routinely make long voyages on foot, and yet it took a few university studies and a whole bunch of pickle juice for the western world to realize what others had figured out long ago. Over the next few hours, we pushed the olives and kept grinding along.

Photo by Alessandro Beltrame
Photo by Alessandro Beltrame

A long, black road lay before us, climbing up a mountain in the distance. “This is crazy.” Mohammed said, in a thick Moroccan accent. “Why run on a perfect road when you can easily drive car?” he continued. “There in the mountains,” he said, pointing to the sharp peaks that rose up to our left, “Cannot drive car, so yes, you run. But here, on this road you can drive car. So why run?” The rare outburst perfectly captured both the insanity of the current undertaking, as well as the secret to Mohammed’s success at ultra distance running events all over the world. For Mohammed, raised as a Bedouin in the Sahara Desert, running was a way of life – a means of survival, livelihood, and above all else, transportation.

As the hours rolled on, the conversation flowed. We discussed politics, geography, and religion. Mohammad by his own admission, was “Not a good Muslim”. When I asked what he meant, he responded, “I believe. I practice Ramadan, but sometimes I don’t pray at morning, or sometimes I don’t pray at night.” I let that sink in and wondered that if fasting during day light hours, every day for a month, but occasionally missing a morning or evening prayer constituted being bad at one’s belief system, I was definitely in bad shape, and could do a bit more to improve in my own flavor of religion. He added that to him a religion’s value was based on its ability to help its followers become better people – kinder, more compassionate, more loving. Not the war torn reality we see. Those who used religion to justify war and hatred were “doing it wrong.” Mohammed is a kind man. He is soft spoken. He is quick to smile, hug, give praise, and express appreciation. He sacrifices and is willing to make himself uncomfortable for the comfort of his family. In my opinion, he is doing it right.

Photo by www.thrmagazine.info
Photo by www.thrmagazine.info

Off to the left a black raven stared as we ran by. His mouth was wide open as if stuck at the end of a “Cahw.” I wondered if he had succumbed to the elements of Death Valley and as a result his jaw muscles had cramped up. I tossed him an olive as a symbol of compassion. “Acetic acid bro, it’s good for you.” He didn’t eat it.

Photo by Alessandro Beltrame
Photo by Alessandro Beltrame

A jackrabbit darted from behind a withered tree and found refuge under the pseudo shade of another. Mohammed told of how, once while hunting on foot, he had caught one with his bare hands. A deep sense of envy sank in as I longed for the powerful human potential that is reached and the kinds of  seemingly super human  instincts that remain intact when one lives so closely to the land.

Another mile and a  4 inch scorpion appeared on the road. “Attention” Mohammed said, pointing it out with a nod of his head. “Careful.” I translated back to myself.

At the next fueling station, Iron Cowboy James and I switched roles. He joined Mohammed, and I took on the duties of keeping them both fueled. The contrast between James and I was stark – I look like a distance runner, small, somewhat emaciated, skinny legs. James on the other hand looks like a body builder – until he moves. Then you see the efficiency of his running form and it causes a confusion in the minds of those who are well versed in the world of endurance athletics. How does that much mass move with such effortless grace? Perhaps that is the very secret to James’ success.

Photo by Alessandro Beltrame
Photo by Alessandro Beltrame

Mohammed and James ran along for the next several hours. Dust Devils whipped across the cracked desert floor sending huge sand colored plumes upward, set in contrast against the bright blue sky and the burning white sun.

Mohammed’s knees began to give him trouble. He did what he could to continue but within a few miles he was reduced to a limping walk. Another mile and he was vomiting uncontrollably – dry heaving for another several minutes after he had wretched all of his fluid and nutrition onto the steaming desert floor. He was doing everything right, but given the circumstances it began to appear that the desert was going to win this one.

Mohammed struggled on, James at his side. He limped in to Panamint springs at mile 72, barely able to walk. After a thorough rundown, the medical staff, Mohammed, and the crew determined it was best to pull the plug. It was a tough decision, but the right one.

Photo by Alessandro Beltrame
Photo by Alessandro Beltrame

We all sat down together for lunch. Mohammed, Linda, Alessandro, James, and I. Over the previous night and day we had grown close. We all ate eagerly, while resisting urge to rest our faces in our hands and fall asleep right there at the table. It had been a long, long day. Mohammed was exhausted, and clearly disappointed as he felt that he had somehow let us down. He hadn’t. He had done everything within his control. That’s all that can be expected of anyone.  He sat there and silently picked the pepperoni off of his pizza, too tired and hungry to try and explain to the Russian waitress the principles of Halal. He may be back. Hopefully next time in his own shoes and with a bit more understanding of the challenges that Death Valley presents. Then again, he may not. I mean, he is right after all. It requires a certain level of insanity to run for 135 miles on a paved road that is perfectly suitable for an air-conditioned car. Maybe he’ll stick to the mountains. Hopefully he’ll need a couple of pacers again at some point. James and I would be more than happy to carry the snacks and try our best to keep up.

@tommy_rivs

Photo by  www.thrmagazine.info
Photo by www.thrmagazine.info

 

 

 

 

 

Aravaipa Running Big Pine 55K

Aravaipa Running Big Pine 55KBig Pine 2

 

A quick glimpse from the Big Pine 55K in Flagstaff last week. I’m happy to say that the goal to “keep all of my blood inside of my body” was a success. It had been a couple of months since I last raced and it felt nice to get back into the grind. I learned, or relearned a few things throughout the 55K, or 30-something miles of beautiful, Ponderosa lined single track trails.

 

  1. Racing at altitude is hard. Really hard. It is always hard. It is silly to ever expect it not to be. There is no easy way to do it. Training at altitude will help immensely, but…even though most of this course covered the EXACT same 7000 ft high trails that I have run almost every day of the last 2 years on my 22 mile commute back and forth to the university, it still hurt. If you are going to race at altitude, expect it to be difficult. If at all possible, spend some time training at altitude – even just for a couple of days. No, your body is not going to “acclimate” in that time. There will not be any long lasting physiological adaptations within a couple of days, but it will help you to know how bad it actually feels, and that is half the battle. Get to know that beautiful, hypoxic, panicky, suffocating feeling. That metallic taste in your mouth that Hemingway called “The taste of death.” – play around in it. Rub it all over you. Learn to become comfortable in that state of extreme discomfort. Learn what it feels like to red-line up a steep climb and then to keep pushing. Learn to calm yourself and breathe through the agony. Get accustomed to the sound of your own blood as it beats loudly in your ears. Despite everything your body is telling you, you are likely NOT going to die. You might, (everyone does at some point) but it’s unlikely to happen just from running at altitude, and if it does it is probably due to something else. So before you race at altitude, find time to play around in it a bit. It won’t transform you into an East African, but it will help you to prepare for the storm to awaits and perhaps help you learn how to calm it.

 

  1. Don’t eat 4 lbs of blueberries the day before the race. Just don’t. I’m a produce snob. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where produce is unmatched in quality and freshness. It is not often that I am excited by produce that has made the long voyage to AZ. So last week when a good batch of blue berries came through (from a farm that I actually used to work for) I had a hard time restraining myself. Note: Don’t buy 16 lbs of fresh blue berries and expect to eat them all before they go bad. Or…maybe do, but don’t plan to race 30-something miles the day after consuming ¼ of them – it won’t end well. I have long prided myself for being “that guy” in the race who doesn’t have to stop every couple of miles to use the port-o-potty. At Big Pine however, that wasn’t the case. It felt like I had Trichinosis. No seriously. I know that’s not something to joke about, but I have actually had it before so I can, AND because I’ve had it, I actually do know what it feels like. There was a brief moment during the race that I thought perhaps I had contracted Listeria from my good friend and fellow Flagstaff-Voluntarily-Impoverished-Professional-Endurance-Athlete Forrest Misenti (@forre5t) who actually did have Listeria a few weeks back. Although we had run together a quite a few times in the recent past, my mind was put at ease as I reminded myself that you can’t contract Listeria by doing strides with someone who has had it. Phew. Note: If you are hoping to get lean and mean and can’t seem to shed those last extra stubborn pounds, one dose of Listeria will do the trick. Again, not something to joke about, but for my homie Forest, it’s real life. (#ListeriaSurvivor)  Back to blue berries. It doesn’t matter how good they are, or how many antioxidants are contained in their tannin rich skin, they will not help you run a fast race if copiously consumed the day before. Restrain yourself and stick to the good old fashion, basic starches. It’s always better to be a bit plugged up the day after a race than the opposite the day of a race.

 

  1. Be nice. Everyone out on the course is struggling. Everyone. That discomfort is the great unifier of endurance feats. We are all there in an attempt to somehow make ourselves better; to reach a goal; to prove to ourselves that we are in control; to silence our demons; to reconnect with the natural world and our natural selves within that world; or simply to make us feel alive for a few hours in this mundane, overly-mechanized world. We’re all in this together, so for goodness sakes, be nice. Acknowledge each other with a wave, or smile, or a quick word of encouragement. Thank the volunteers and the race directors and the people who you dragged out of a comfortable bed or an air conditioned house to come support you because they love you, or at the very least tolerate you. Remember that nobody is handing them potato chips and cups of ice cold coke every 15 minutes. If you’re having an awful day out there being an A-hole is not going to make it better. All it does is make you an A-hole who is running slow. If you are having your best day ever, still be nice. Even if you are running fast, you’re still just a fast A-hole. Nobody likes that.  Even if a ton of money is on the line, it is likely not enough to buy drinks or dinner for everyone you scowled at in the process of winning it.  “Oh, but it will slow me down if I take the effort to acknowledge others around me.” False. It won’t. This is a 30-something mile race, not a 100 meter sprint, and even if it was, Usain Bolt still smiles and waves while setting world records.  “I don’t have the energy to smile.” Also, not true. A smile is nothing more than a grimace with raised eye brows and your cheeks spread a little wider (face cheeks). Try it out. Go look in the mirror. You’ll see. (Again, face cheeks).  Look at the very best the world has ever known. Haile Gebreselasie, Chrissy Wellington, Kilian Jornet. They somehow find the energy to be gracious and it doesn’t slow them down. In fact, it seems to actually make them faster. It puts a positive lens on the agony they are facing in the moment and somehow allows them (and us) to push into even deeper levels of agony and reach higher levels of strength. I’m not the best at this, but I realized it again last week as I saw runner, after runner, after runner, smile and high five, and hoot,  and whistle, and offer words of encouragement and kindness. It made me feel strong, and fast, and capable. And even in the really dark times, when I doubted myself and wondered how much more I could endure, it made me realize that I had friends on my side, and I wasn’t in this alone.  I think that’s kinda why we do this in the first place.

 

Thank you to @aravaiparunning for another incredible event.

 

PC: The lovely and talented Melissa at @sweetmimages http://www.sweetmimages.com

 

 

Men of the Mountain

Men of the Mountain

Adapted from an interview by David Clavera that originally appeared at: http://www.corredordemontana.com/index.php/actualidad/item/entrevista-tommy-rivers
Adapted from an interview by David Clavera that originally appeared at:  http://www.corredordemontana.com/index.php/actualidad/item/entrevista-tommy-rivers

 

I am often asked what a typical week of training looks like for me. Of course there is a considerable amount of running, but if someone digs deeper; if they ask how I have developed the ability to run for long hours in the mountains, they are usually surprised with my response: “Hiking. On a treadmill. A lot.” Come back with me to a tiny, remote village nestled among steep terraced coffee plantations in the high attitude volcanic mountains of Central America. It was there, several years ago, that I accidentally discovered a secret that was kept among some of the world’s most incredible endurance athletes; men so revered, that the neighboring jungle dwelling indigenous populations, who were rarely seen, and even more seldom heard, referred to them affectionately with the respected title, “Men of the mountain”.

In our first year of marriage, my wife 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.


Fallas

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….(sigh)… 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.

San Gerardo

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.

San Gerardo iglesia

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”.

cerro chirripo

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, which essentially consisted of hiking up a very steep trail, for hours at a time.  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, being careful to start and begin in the exact same place as the starting line had been on that overgrown futbol field in the center of the village. Now, after countless moonlit trips up and down that mountain I was no longer the same person. The mountain had changed me. I seemed to fly up the steep trail that by then I knew so well, and after reaching the top some two hours later, I charged resolutely 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 imaginary finish line at the bottom, careful not to run into a local cow grazing in the field’s tall grass, 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 hiking up and running down the mountain every night.

San gerardo caballo

Years later, I still think back on what I learned during my time on that incredible mountain among very wise men, who happened to be some of the greatest endurance athletes the world has never seen. That experience changed my whole view on what I consider the best way to develop fitness and how to become unbeatable in the mountains. Life is different now. It’s more complicated. I’m enrolled in a full time doctorate program at the university. My wife Steph and I have two little girls and another on the way. I work. She works. The one thing that has remained the same since we left Central America is that I still train incredibly hard, and a lot of it consists of hiking uphill.

DCIM195GOPRO

Of course I would love to be able to be back in those warm misty mountains, climbing those steep trails under the rising moon, but right now that’s not possible. Instead, several times a week, I set the incline on my treadmill to as steep as I can handle (usually not up the 40% potential max of the Incline Trainer -made my Nordic Track, but maybe someday). I love that I can use Google Maps to access almost anywhere in the world and explore new mountains and trails on the HD screen right in front of me. I increase the speed until I am at a challenging but sustainable rhythm, and I climb for as long as I have available – allowing my mind to drift back to that high altitude rain forest.

[Legal: I was provided with a Nordic Track Incline Trainer in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion.] My honest and unbiased opinion is that I like it. A lot.
[Legal: I was provided with a Nordic Track Incline Trainer in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion.] My honest and unbiased opinion is that I like it. A lot.
Not only does it calm me and help me reflect upon all of the important lessons I learned in those mountains in Central America, but it also gives me confidence in my fitness, knowing that even if I can’t physically be there, I can still train my body in the same exact way as I did when I lived among the Men of the Mountain.

 

Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: South Dakota

South DakotaSD BRIDGEAlthough James is getting stronger in some regards, the enormous challenges that he is faced with each day continues to be a struggle. He has learned to focus on the task immediately before him, and not allow himself to think about anything beyond that. He has also learned that his crew is fully invested in helping him carry out the incredible feat.  Still, James knows that the job is up to him. It is he who must swim every stroke, pedal every inch of the bike course, and muscle through every step of the marathon. But, at the same time, he has learned to trust those around him, and rely on the support that they are able to give.

With his Wingmen beside him, James looked at the water. He focused  on the 2.4 mile swim, and mentally prepared for the familiar,  excruciating pain that he knew would shoot through his right shoulder as soon as he began. He had already made up his mind to accomplish the task. He knew that he would finish it. But still, he dreaded the inevitable pain that comes each morning as he takes the plunge into the cold water -his half conscious body slowly awakening as he begins to move his aching arms and kick his tattered feet.

SD SWIM

As the swim dragged on this morning, Casey and Aaron came to the rescue once again with an attempt to put a lighthearted spirit into the monotonous and painful aquatic feat. With the use of bungee cords and duck tape, the Wingmen attached homemade cardboard shark fins to their backs and began to swim next to James. The idea was genius, but the wilting effect of the water on the cardboard wreaked havoc on the would-be reenactment of Jaws. Instead of strong, erect dorsal fins  cutting a sharp path through the water, Casey and Aaron were left with flaccid fins that resembled a scene from Free Willy – the  domesticated Orca swimming with a limp dorsal fin that had arched over,  rather than  with a tall, strait fin like that of his wild companions.

FREE wILLY

Not only was the water an issue, but the functional component of the task proved difficult as well – Casey and Aaron attempting to swim through the water while simultaneously doing their best to hold the limp fin erect on their backs with one hand. Perhaps it was all for the best. Had they been successful it might have been too much for James , given the recent scare off of the waters of South Africa between a Great White and Professional surfer Mick Fanning.  It would be a shame if in the end it was a shark-induced panic attack in an indoor swimming facility that knocked the Iron Cowboy off course.

SHARK

The wind began to pick up as James transitioned from the swim onto the bike. A small group of cyclists met up and escorted him out onto a long out and back bike path. The course carved through corn fields, skirted a small brown river, and passed by a golf course and a state penitentiary. Within a couple of hours, the bike escort was fried – the beating sun and the strongest winds yet had left all but a few incapable of pulling the Iron Cowboy along at as fast a pace as he would prefer. It wasn’t their fault, it was simply a numbers game.SOUTH DAKOTA BIKEAn effective peloton is a group effort. It was never designed to be a solo feat. The strength is found in each member of the group doing everything they can to contribute to the group. It is the reason that every year, birds are able to undertake unbelievable feats of endurance, as they migrate as a group thousands of miles across the world. It wouldn’t be possible if they attempted the task on their own – the challenge is simply too great. Without everyone working together in the group, migration would be impossible. Faced with that scenario of too few birds to make up a migration team, there would be two options: adapt, or die.

Geese

The state of Hawaii is home to the rarest goose in the entire world. The Nene or Hawaiian goose descended from a small group of Canadian geese who lost their way during migration some 500,000 years ago and miraculously landed on one of the small islands. (A doubtful claim when you consider that the world is only 6000 years old)  It is believed that the numbers of the small flock were too small to resume flight and successfully make it to their intended destination. It would take the work of an entire flock to successfully carry out that incredible transpacific journey. Lacking the collective strength of a complete team, the Geese had no other option than to stay where they landed.

NENE Over the years their small gene pool has caused them to develop slightly different characteristics than their Canadian predecessors.  For example, rather than say things like “Sooory” and “Abooot”, the Geese now speak a form of Hawaiin Pidgin, referring to one another as Brah, greeting one another with “Howzit?” and describing things with adjectives such as “gnarly”, “heavy”,  “epic”, and “Brah! All time!” At least that’s what evolutionary biologists claim. Maybe the geese were smarter than we give them credit for. Maybe they either intentionally left their Canadian home and flew to the  tropical paradise, or they really did find it by accident and realized they were on to something good. Why migrate? Why eat grass and bugs when you can grind on Spam Musubi and Loko Mokos?

MUSUBI

Incapable of transpacific migration? Nah, I think the birds knew what they were doing all along.

The point though, is that a large group working together is capable of so much more than the same number of individuals working independently. Without the best efforts of everyone involved, the progress is halted and the task is grounded. It doesn’t mean that everyone has the same capabilities; it simply means that everyone contributes what they can. That is the beauty of the peloton, or the migrating flock. Each bird or cyclist takes his turn up front – fighting through the wind, and creating a slip stream for those who follow behind. The effort of the leader decreases the energy output of the followers by as much as 30%. When the leader is no longer able to maintain the necessary pace, he simply drops to the back of the pack and rests in the slip stream of the others until it is once again his turn to pull into the wind. The collective effort allows the entire group to travel faster and more efficient than if they were each working on their own.

Such was the struggle with the South Dakota bike leg. The howling wind and the strong sun, in combination with the small group, left the cyclists spent. Within a few hours, it was they who were hoping to fall into the slip stream of James. I joined the group in the early afternoon and worked together with a couple other strong cyclists to punch a hole in the wind so that James could cover the distance but still conserve as much energy as possible for the run.

As we approached the 85 mile mark, James hit an unexpected bump in the bike path. His face grimaced as the force of the jolt sent a pounding blow to the tender region of his Netherlands. “Errr….” he snarled trying his best to stay upright, while momentarily lifting his strangled manhood – smothered under the compressive grip of his cycling bibs – off of the two small shafts of his bike seat. This particular saddle model was designed to allow blood flow into the vital male parts by allowing the rider’s  gentlemen to rest on the edge of what resembles a tuning fork, rather than be split down the middle as with traditional bike seats. Although the design seemed to theoretically provide a bit of relief, in actuality, the trauma of using your Netherlands to support your entire body weight for 8 hours at a time, over the course of 7 weeks was more than James liked to think about.  The lack of feeling in James’s saddle region has been the  topic of conversation during many of the long bike rides over the last couple of weeks. “I seriously can’t feel anything down there.” James told me on one such occasion. “No seriously,” he continued, “I flicked it as hard as I could last time I stopped to pee and I didn’t feel a thing. Do you think that’s bad?” “Um…” I muttered, trying to imagine that what must feel like – or not feel like – but not quite knowing how to respond.  “What am I going to do when this is all over?” James would invariably ask. After much discussion, James decided that he would seek a sponsored with Cialis and become rich from the commercial they would produce.  It would feature highlight footage of the Iron Cowboy during the 50 day event, followed by images of James moping around aimlessly at the completion of the grueling feat. The narrator would read the final statement. “Cialis”, he would say in an overdramatic Hollywood voice, “After 50 Iroman distance triathlons, in 50 days in 50 states, we converted James Lawrence from ‘reverse cowgirl’, back into the Iron Cowboy.”  Finally it would cut to a view of James in a bathtub overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, fading out of focus as the potential side effects were read at lightning speed.

Cialis

I thought about the potential repercussions of the chronic blood deprivation as we rode along and wondered how it was affecting my own ‘gentlemen’ per se. I mean, I know I haven’t been on the bike nearly as much as James in the last few weeks, but I have ridden quite a bit. I stood off of the saddle for a moment  and did the best I could  adjust my undercarriage – swaying my hips back and forth as if that would somehow return blood flow to the sensitive, deprived areas. James must have noticed, as out of nowhere he asked, “Does your butt hurt?” a look of humor on his face. “Yeah a little bit,” I lied. It actually hurt like crazy, but I didn’t dare complain in the midst of what James was dealing with.  I should have said it didn’t hurt at all, as James countered back with a sarcastic look and said, “Yeah, I bet it’s really killing you huh?”  “Yeah.” I said with a laugh. “Man,” he started, “You have no idea. My freaking testicals look like two armadillos rolled up in their shells.” I laughed as I turned and glanced at the corn field beside us. I pictured the image, grimacing myself as I envisioned two round spheres, covered in thick scaly armor, bracing themselves for the torturous battering that promised to assault them.

armadillos

See, the advantage of being a human being is that we have the ability to adapt physiologically in response to stresses. At the same time, the problem with being a human being is that we have the ability to adapt physiologically in response to stresses. Calluses on our hands and feet provide welcome protection from the stress and strain that caused them. Calluses on other areas of our bodies…Well that’s another scenario altogether.

I stared into the wind and continued to ride at the pace James had instructed. As we reached a chewed-up piece of asphalt I pointed it out to James, but he wasn’t able to react in time. He hit the patch at full speed, the force of the bumps sending the same familiar agonizing jolt up through his saddle and into his body.  “Sorry about that man.” I said, looking over my shoulder at James – a feeling of shame entering into my chest as I acknowledged the failure on my part. “It’s ok.” He responded. “Just a beating on my two biggest haters.” he continued, nonchalantly. “Your balls?” I asked, wondering why he would call them his haters. “No, not my balls.” He responded back, “My hemorrhoids.” I have two right now. I named them ******* and ******* after my two biggest haters – the two people who have been talking  the most crap about me since this whole thing began.” I looked over at his playful but truthful eyes, and tried not crash from laughter as I realized he was dead serious. He looked back at me and continued, “Now when I hit a bad bump or crack in the road, I just see it as a way to punish my haters for the crap they talk”. He then bunny hopped 5 or 6 times in a row, lifting both tires off of the ground and smashing his crotch onto his seat with each impact. “Bam! Take that suckas!” he said with each jolting impact. “It’s not so bad when I think of it that way.” he said with a playful, yet painful, weary smile.

We finished the 112 miles on the bike and made it back to the transition. James sat in the grass as he ate his pre-race meal. After a bit of recovery and a change of clothes, we hit the same exact bike path but this time wearing running shoes.  The run escort was almost nonexistent, so Lucy and Lily, James’ two oldest daughters joined on their bikes – a request from their tired dad as he could use the company to get him through the rest of long, tough day.  Within the first hundred meters of the run, James stopped and adjusted his shorts and compression tights half a dozen times. Finally I asked, “You ok man?” “No.” he responded, “My whole body itches like crazy.” I bent down and looked closely at his legs. There was a thick red rash starting at his calves, turning into big bumpy hives as it climbed up his thighs, all the way up to his lower back. He pulled back his shorts to reveal a broad patch  of small dark red dots just below his waist line. I looked at the hives and wondered what had caused them. My thoughts quickly downward spiraled from mild food allergy, to heat rash, to a skin response to an endocrine imbalance, to a full blown allergic reaction resulting in anaphylactic shock and a dead Iron Cowboy. I kept my thoughts to myself, but said, “It looks like you’re having a bit of an allergic reaction. Why don’t we make a couple of small little loops around the park and see how it goes?” James went along with it. At this point he basically does whatever his escort tells him, not having the energy to disagree or argue unless is something he is completely opposed to. We kept running and I made a quick phone call to one of the crew members, asking that they pick up a bottle of Benadryl – hoping it wouldn’t be necessary, but good to have on hand in the event that his immune system decided to wage war on it’s host and invite Jame’s respiratory system to the party as well.

The itching continued as we finished the first loop, so we headed towards the motor home and found a bottle of anti-itch cream – something James had saved from the days in New England, purchased in the event that he or any one of the crew decided to wipe with the inviting 3 leafed poison ivy plants.

James stood in the doorway of the motor home, obstructed from view, as I grabbed the tube of cream and squeezed a large portion into my hand. Aaron and Casey looked on, doing their best to block the gaze of any unsuspected onlooker. James looked up in no particular direction, as if using every ounce of energy he could muster to not crumble into an all out nervous breakdown. All of the accumulative fatigue from the previous 6 weeks and now this – a full marathon yet to run, racked by the overwhelming urge to rip the itchy, welted skin off of his entire body. James took long focused breaths as he dropped his running shorts around his knees and I proceeded to rub anti-itch cream from his lower back southward, all the way to the backs of his thighs. In my mind it was no different than putting diaper cream on a baby – definitely not the highlight of my day, but at times a necessary responsibility.  In an instant the awkward mood was broken as a woman appeared from behind the side of the motor home and peered around the door, her eyes slowly registering the scene before her, but not before the message she had sent from her brain had exited her mouth. “Is this the sign up for the Junior football league?” she asked.  Casey and Aaron’s eyes jumped up and met those of the startled woman. I craned my head around, trying to make sense of what I had just heard, still rubbing anti-itch cream all over Jame’s butt – his shorts still around his knees.  The woman’s question lingered in the silent air.  James didn’t even react. Casey and Aaron stood there motionless for an instant. I froze as well, my hands still rubbing the cream. Finally, Casey broke the silence to the woman’s question, with a matter-of-fact answer, “Yes ma’am.”

It turned out that while sitting in the grass eating dinner, James had been bitten by a bunch of Chiggers – a type of Mite from the family Trombiculidae. The anti-itch rub down seemed to do the trick, and within a couple of miles, the itching had stopped and the Iron Cowboy was moving along at a good pace, still escorted by his two eldest daughters.LUCY LILYThey enjoyed the time riding beside their superhero father, with the exception of one brief moment…

Just as James was finishing up his 12th mile, a huge burst of gas emerged from his backside, promising death and destruction upon any and all within its reach. At that very moment, both Lily and Lucy happen to be riding directly within the wake. James had made no reaction, nor did he think about the repercussions of the noxious fumes, until an instant later when we heard a loud crashing noise. We turned around to find that both girls had crashed their bikes and lay laughing in the tall grass on the side of the path. The crash was likely unrelated to the flatulence of the Iron Cowboy, but the sequence of events made it hard to stay upright as laughter seemed to infect everyone who had witnessed the event.

A large group showed up for the 5k and many stuck around for the rest of the Marathon. It was a huge help to the tired cowboy after a hard, lonely day. As easy as James makes this look, day in and day out, the struggle is still real. It is said that every superhero needs a villain, and although the Iron Cowboy may appear to some to be a superhero, he is only human. He doesn’t need any villains, what he needs is support and encouragement.  He has committed to reaching this seemingly impossible goal, and although I sincerely believe he could still accomplish the task with only the support of his family and crew, it is still much easier with the help of the hundreds and thousands who have shown up along the way and do what they can to keep the Cowboy moving down the long, unforgiving path.

We are no different than James -we need one another. Just like a peloton, or a flock of migrating birds, we can accomplish so much more if we help each other along this path we call life. It doesn’t matter who is the strongest or who is the weakest. What is important is that we all do as much as we can. If all of us do what is within our reach, collectively that will be enough. We are in this together. So help one another.  Encourage others. Help them to believe in themselves. That is called building faith. That is what angels do. Angels build up others and help them to see their potential. They find strengths in others and point it out. They sincerely complement the virtuous and noble and beautiful attributes they see in others. Demons do the opposite. They destroy faith.  They make people  doubt their abilities. They highlight deficiencies and exploit weaknesses. They focus on the ugly, and the weak and weary.

Be an angel to someone, not a demon.

There are already too many demons because it so easy to be one.  It only brings about ruin, sadness, doubt and destruction. It makes someone’s already difficult task, more difficult.  Don’t do it anymore. Stop talking crap about people. It hurts. It makes them feel bad. It makes them doubt themselves and it makes them doubt others. We’re all susceptible to that kind of pain, even Iron Cowboys. It doesn’t help anything or anybody. It doesn’t make you stronger, it only shows that you are weak. It will bring about nothing good. All you will get out of it in the end is a hollow empty feeling, and possibly a hemorrhoid named after you.  So stop. Just be nice instead.

 

@tommy_rivs

Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Nebraska

NEBRASKA

PC: @jessakae
PC: @jessakae

 

As we rolled out of Mason City Iowa I thought back on the previous 18 hours and all that had transpired. There was a heaviness that had weighed on me throughout the day but I couldn’t quite identify what had triggered it. I stared out the window up at the bright stars that shone down through the clear black sky and caught myself quietly singing,

“February made me shiver…With every paper I….delivered.  Bad news on the door step…I couldn’t take one more step. And I can’t remember if I cried when I… read about his widowed bride….something touched me…deep inside, the day…the music…died.”

The song was one of the first I had ever learned to play on the guitar. I sat and strummed for hours as a kid, sitting outside a little wooden fruit stand parked on a rural high way out in Eastern Oregon. That is how I spent my summers – slinging fresh produce to the locals and the travelers who drove through the heart of farm country, playing guitar during the lulls and planning my escape from the slow pace of country living by making it on the big stage.

That song had stuck with me over the years – its haunting melody and somber message picking at my emotions and taking me back in time to a simpler period in my life. Just like that it hit me. My mind shot back to earlier that same day as the locals told me of Buddy Holly’s crash. The shock must have dislodged that old song – knocking it off a dusty shelf in my brain. Without any conscious thought, I began to hum it – adding words and full verses as I moved through the monotony and struggle of trying to shield James on the windy bike course. I had hoped to visit the place of the crash but there was no time in the hustle of doing whatever I could to help keep the Iron Cowboy moving down the road. Perhaps it was that desire to pay my respects to Buddy Holly -such an influential player in my life-that had caused the heaviness I had carried in my chest throughout the day. I thought about Buddy. I thought about Peggy Sue. I always had a childish crush on the beautiful woman I imagined her to be. I wondered who she was and what she looked like. I wondered if that was really her name. She must have been incredible to haunt Buddy like that.  I knew from Buddy’s music that Peggy had been married a long time ago, but still, I wondered if she had ever visited the crash site just a few miles back. The heaviness slowly lifted off of my chest as I remembered what had caused it – as if simply acknowledging the trigger had been enough to remove the nagging burden.

I kept my eyes on the road, as we drove out of the county of Cerro Gordo – “Fat Pig”.  “A fitting name”, I thought, trying to concentrate amid the overwhelming stench of hog farms that drifted in with the blowing wind. It was one of the worst things I have ever smelled in my entire life. Even worse than the gas that James lets erupt from his backside during the run. I learned quickly to run by his side at all times rather than slip behind. It will permanently damage your eye sight and burn your throat. We concluded after my first unfortunate experience running behind James, that each breath of the pungent vapor contains somewhere between 4 and 6 grams of protein.  Less than a minute of running behind the cowboy would be enough to meet the dietary needs of a body builder for an entire day. Still, James and his vapors were nothing compared to the smell of hog that was floating in the Iowa wind.

I awoke a few hours later on the small futon in the motor home –Wingman Casey’s face buried into my chest and Wingman Aaron’s feet resting on my face. We had switched drivers throughout the night and somehow all ended up on the same 12 square foot piece of padding – tangled up as if someone had pressed pause on an awkward game of fraternity twister. It was hard to decipher where one beard ended and another began.  It’s been a long time since I felt the loving touch of my lovely Steph, but even in that deprived sense of desperation, Casey’s fuzzy face and Aaron’s travel-worn feet didn’t quite do it for me. Sorry Wingmen.

NEBRASKA SWIM

Rain lightly fell as James began the swim in the outdoor YMCA facility. A local swimmer joined, covering the distance in the next lane. With only a few laps left, the swimmer leaped out of the pool and ran towards a trashcan a few feet away –vomiting up all of his breakfast in a retching roar that broke the gentle hum of the rain, and jarred the spectators back into the proper context of what the Iron Cowboy was in the process of undertaking. James exited the water and stuffed a few thousand calories down his throat. He prepped for the bike and looked out at the dark sky – his haggard eyes trying to stay positive, but reflecting mainly fatigue.

 

NEBRASKA JAMES

The bike course looked just like Iowa – long country roads that passed endless rows of corn and huge fields of soy beans. The escort was a solid group, but the monotony of the open landscape and the bright sun that had burnt off the clouds, made the day seem to drag on. Wingmen Casey and Aaron came to the rescue yet again, dawning beautiful party dresses with spaghetti straps.

DRESSES 1
They chased down the Peloton from behind, screaming wildly like two adoring fans as they cut through the air on their top-of-the-line time trial bikes – well defined leg muscles rippling beneath their dresses, and thick beards contrasting wildly beneath long blond hair extensions.

DRESSES 2

James did what any other person in his situation would do – he focused his eyes on the road in front of him, tightened his grip on his handle bars, and tried  hard to stay up right while shaking  his head and laughing uncontrollably.

A large group showed up to join James for the  Marathon. We ran along a paved urban path out to a levee that circled a shiny blue lake surrounded by large shade tress and lined with bright green grass. The scene,combined with the bright blue sky and white fluffy clouds to create a surreal setting – as if running through a picture- drawn in chalk on a London side walk by Bert, the transient heart throb of Mary Poppins herself.NEBRASKA RUNWe dropped down off of the levee and approached a small bridge that crossed a mossy green inlet. James pointed out a couple in a small flat-bottomed wooden boat, teetering back and forth as they fished in the green muck. “That thing would be so easy to tip over.” I casually said as we ran towards it, climbing for a few steps up onto the bridge.  “I’ll give you 100 bucks if you swim out there right now and flip it.” James tempted. “100 bucks?!” I repeated, trying to gauge whether he was serious or not. “I’ll throw in another hundred!” one of the other runners shouted out. “Me too!” shouted another. By the time we got to the other side of the bridge, the wager was up to $350. “Ugh…!!”I thought, looking at the thick green slime and watching the bugs walk across the surface. “Those aren’t even water sliders” I thought to myself, realizing that the “water” was thick enough that even creatures who didn’t have the ability to take advantage of the surface tension of water through special widely spaces feet, still had the ability to walk on it. I thought about the $350 dollars. That’s like 8 date nights with Steph –baby sitter included if I eat a pre-dinner before we go out.  Then I thought back to the blue-green algae bloom back in Vermont -my mouth instantly watering in defense as I remembered the taste of frog urine in my mouth. That lake was a crystal clear, blue-ish paradise –practically pure spring water compared to this steaming green sludge. I thought about Steph, then about my girls. “You only live once, #YOLO!”  my mind seemed to counter, pushing the thought of my family out of my mind. “You only die once too, you idiot.” another voice chided in my head.

We reached the end of the bridge and I continued running, the sharp sting of realizing that I had just passed up a 3 minute work day ringing loudly in my mind. At the same time, I knew I had made the right decision, imagining what kind of flesh eating bacteria that must abide in the “water” below me.

We were met by a huge group for the Iron Cowboy 5k. The course covered a community path that gently rose and fell as it moved behind neighborhoods and small heavily wooded parks.NEBRASKA BRIDGEI ran alongside Lily –James and Sunny’s 11 year old. She is an adorable social butterfly with a lovely voice and an artful eye. She has also been responsible for painting the finger and toe nails of everyone in the crew. We started a couple of minutes late and had to play catch up with the rest of the group – speed walking up the hills and running on the downs and flats. Crew member Jordan ran along with us blasting the soundtrack of Frozen from his smart phone. The three of us finished the 3.1 miles in radiant fashion – frolicking in unison with a combination of parkour, pirouetts and Grand Jetes, the melodic tune of “Let It Go” looping endlessly on repeat.

James was joined by a smaller group as he ran into the night – pushing onward until his Garmin read “26.2 miles”. Every day is a new battle for James. Sunny, Casey and Aaron play “Not it” as they try to shirk the enormous responsibility of waking him up each morning, knowing that his exhausted body has barely fallen asleep only a few hours before. They don’t want to be the one who has to tell James that the short reprieve is over – a new day has begun; time to start the whole process again. Many of the struggles that have plagued James from the beginning are still around – stubborn, nagging, overuse injuries that refuse to leave and only get worse with each new day. On top of that, there are new aches and pains that make their subtle entrances as the Cowboy hears the whisperings of pain, but refuses to stop. In a few days those whispers will become screams.

At the same time, James continues to get stronger – completing these most recent days faster than any of the previous. It is absolutely mind blowing to comprehend the process. Bodies are not supposed to be able to handle this type of stress. The physical and chemical laws that form the limits of human physiological potential seem to suggest that such a load would crush anyone who attempts to bear it.

James, however, seems to have reached a point where his body has accepted the load and made physiological adaptations in response to it. He has broken through into new realms of human potential. He has shown us that we are not bound by the laws that have been determined by science or popular misconceptions. He has shown us that we can achieve incredible things if we believe in ourselves and then work to achieve the goals we have set out to accomplish.

So dream big.  Reflect on what you want to achieve. Think deeply about who you want to be and the kind of life you want to lead. Find areas where you want to improve. Maybe the goal isn’t to complete a 5k or a Marathon or an Ironman. Maybe there are deficiencies in your character that you want to improve. Perhaps the goal is to have more integrity. Maybe you want to be a better friend, a kinder spouse, a more patient and loving parent. Maybe you want to fight the addictive pull that lures you into talking crap about people behind their backs. Sure it might temporarily make you feel better about yourself, and allow you to feel justified for your own shortcomings, but in the end it makes you feel sick, and dirty, and unfulfilled. Maybe your struggle is with food, or alcohol, or self loathing, or pettiness, or pharmaceuticals.

Maybe you have been terribly hurt, or abused or wronged and the pain that burned a hole through your being is now bolstered by anger, and hate, and grief. “How can I possibly forgive?” you may have wondered. “If I forgive, what then? That rage is all I have left. That is what holds me up and keeps me going. Give that up? And then what? How will I keep from crumbling in on myself? How can I possibly continue without that. Can I really face that challenge and live with that new reality? How Can I muster the strength to build a new life, with new meaning, and new sources of strength?”

You can. I promise you can. I know because I have.

It won’t come easy. You will struggle. The process will hurt. It will take commitment. It will challenge you. There will be times where you think it is going to break you, and it might come close.  It will be difficult, perhaps the most difficult thing you have ever experienced. But it is possible to overcome. And in the end, it will be worth it.

Start small. Remember these words from the Princess Diaries. (Yes, I really just said that.)

“Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear; The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.”

It’s ok to be afraid. Fear is what makes us human. The key is not to eliminate the fear, but to keep fighting in the presence of it. Have the courage to start. Reach out to those around you. There is help if you need it.  Decide what you want to accomplish and fight until you have reached your goal.

There are no limits to what we can achieve if we believe and are willing to work for it. As humans, we are adaptable – physically, mentally and emotionally.  James has shown us that we have the ability to change, to progress, and to become stronger in response to opposition – it doesn’t matter what kind. Whatever the struggle, keep fighting, keep pushing, keep believing. You can endure it. Your have the ability to not only meet the challenge, but to overcome it and become stronger in the process.

Unless the challenge happens to be hog stench. In which case, the future is bleak. Your body will not adapt to that. Give up now.  That stuff will kill you, or best case scenario, make you wish it had.

 

@tommy_rivs

 

 

Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Iowa

IOWAIOWA SPEECH

Iowa looked exactly like I imagined it would – rows of corn and fields of soy beans in every direction. The sun rose quickly making it hot outside way earlier than should be legal. My mind wondered as I looked up into the bright sky. Come on sun! We’re trying to do an Ironman here. Can’t you just go hang out behind some clouds for a few hours? I mean, we like you and all, but seriously…tan lines before 10:00 am? Maybe we’ll talk to Sunny. She may have an in.

We considered a rain dance, but that gets complicated as well with Iron Cowboy James’ cold blooded nature. Maybe we could choreograph a “slightly overcast, hovering around 70 degrees with no wind” dance.  Casey could probably come up with something, although we’d likely have to remove a few pelvic thrusts and booty bumps before we submitted it to Mother Earth.

We awoke in the small town of Mason City, known for manufacturing all kinds of Kraft products -specifically Jello and pudding, but also known for being the fateful location where, “the music died”.  It was from Mason City that the airplane had departed, and it was in a field just 6 miles away that it had crashed – taking the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson, and pilot Roger Peterson.

PLANE CRASH

I felt a strange sense of excitement, in combination with grief, as the locals bragged about these two claims of fame. I love Jello. Seriously, it’s one of my favorite things in the entire world. In the two days we spent in the hospital after the birth of our second daughter, I single handedly ate all of the Jello in the entire maternity ward. In my opinion it really is one of the greatest things ever invented.

I also love Buddy Holly. Buddy’s “Greatest Hits” was one of the only tapes I owned growing up. I listened to that thing on repeat for years – packing it in my walkman for long bike rides, learning to ride with no hands as I would take the tape out and flip it over when it reached the end of one side. Buddy was one of the musicians who defined my childhood and adolescence. I had heard about his fatal crash, but I never imagined I would randomly wake up just a few miles from where it had all taken place.

buddy-holly

The 2.4 mile swim was held at an indoor facility in response to a request by James to avoid any more open water swims throughout the rest of the journey. The pain in his shoulder is only increasing, and he prefers the controlled, predictable environment in the event the anything go drastically wrong.

A small group of cyclists joined for the 112 mile bike ride. The sun beat down on the black pavement that cut a path through the rows of cornfields – extending like a great green quilts all the way to the horizon where they made a stark contrast with the bright blue sky. “Maybe I should stop and take a picture.” I thought.  I could probably submit it to Microsoft for the default backdrop of their new desk top and use the money to pay for the rest of my school.BIKE IOWAAbout 30 miles into the ride, James stopped to refill bottles. His eyes were tired, hiding behind mirrored lenses in a shadowy, sunken position.  He turned to me and said, “I’m falling asleep out there. I’m really struggling today. I need some help.” His face was sincere, having lost its typical subdued humor. I told him to eat some food and just keep riding.

JAMES IOWA LENSES

As we trudged on into the next stretch of road, a young enthusiastic rider pulled up alongside James. “I just gotta ask you.” he started, “What do you eat?” – as if hoping for the secret that would give him Iron Cowboy super powers. James glanced over at the young cyclist and replied with a one word answer, “Food.” The cyclist looked disappointed and continued, “Yeah, but what kind of food exactly?” James looked over again and responded, “Whatever they put in front of me.”

It was true. Although James tries hard to eat as many organic, whole, plant – based foods,  and high quality animal proteins as possible, that is not always how it plays out in real life. James’s own personal message is not to aim for perfection, but rather for a B+ average. There are times that high quality food is not available – either because the crew didn’t have the ability to plan ahead, or because food was graciously provided by someone else who was doing the best they could to help fuel the Cowboy on his journey. Of course James prefers to fuel with the highest quality products available, but he will never forgo calories simply because he is unsatisfied with the quality of the food that is available at the time. With the rigors of the challenge he is undertaking, he simply can’t afford to. He and his crew do the best they can, but sometimes that doesn’t work out as planned. On those rare occasions, James consumes whatever is available. If someone were to ask, “What kinds of foods has James consumed on the trip that fall into that realm between B+ and perfection?” the answer would be simple – “Literally, everything you can imagine.”

James’s response, “I eat whatever they put in front of me.” is important as we consider making healthy nutritional choices both for ourselves, and for those who depend upon us. We, and our families, will eat whatever is directly in front of us. Because of this truth, if you want to eat healthy, or if you want your children to eat healthy, it is important to have healthy food available. It is equally important to get rid of foods that are less than optimal. This takes time and a willingness to plan ahead.

Think about your own nutritional vices.  Look around your own fridge and pantry. Are there foods in there that you don’t really want to have in your diet? (even though they taste freaking amazing!) Get rid of them. Replace them with healthy alternatives. Switch out your unhealthy deserts for dates, almonds, bananas, all kinds of fruits, and fruit smoothies. Switch out the refined processed meats for lean, responsibly raised animal products.

PC: @earthyandy
PC: @earthyandy

(Except for Salami – I mean, you can’t expect me to give up that. What am I supposed to pair with my sharp cheddar? Also, lets keep the summer sausage, and the bacon, and the spec. Actually…how about we skip the cured pork products for now. Let’s keep those within that realm between B+ and perfect – temporarily at least.)

Switch out your refined, easily to access carbs with other carbs -veggies and hummus, sweet potatoes, rice and beans, and salads, and all the other whole-food, plant-based items you can think of. Give it a try. Make the switch gradually. I promise you’ll feel better.

PC: @earthyandy
PC: @earthyandy

Slowly add them into your kid’s diet. Ease them in gently if you have to, but do what you need to get the job done. Are they finicky about eating fruit? Try brightly colored fruit smoothies or simply add a small scoop of ice cream to a bowl of berries. Do they hate vegetables? Just sneak a small amount into the fruit smoothies –they won’t know the difference.

PC: @earthyandy
PC: @earthyandy

(Follow @earthyandy on IG and EarthyAndy_ on YouTube if you need some incredible food ideas)

Change is hard. Especially changes to our diets. Start small. Gradually progress, and don’t throw in the towel just because you occasionally struggle. Remember, it’s not about perfection – it’s ok to treat yourself from time to time  Surround yourself with good foods and, as James recommends, just shoot for a B+ average.

As we pushed down the road, bright red lights began to flash before us and two huge white arms dropped across the road – signaling an approaching train. We kept moving by turning off into a long industrial driveway that looped around through an Ethanol plant. “So that’s what they’re doing with all this corn.” I thought to myself. By the time we u-turned and made it back to the entrance of the plant, the train that had caused the detour appeared around a bend. There were a dozen huge round containers being pulled by a bright orange, miniature sized train. It looked like the Keebler Elves had been contracted out to haul ethanol. “They must be out of work.” I thought. “Maybe the Iron Cowboy’s quest to put an end to childhood obesity has decreased the demand for Keeblers”. Poor little guys.  Although the career shift would probably benefit the current generation, I have to admit, it would be sad. Maybe we get the elves to change their approach. Perhaps they could serve as personal trainers and life coaches for young kids who previously couldn’t get enough of the Keeblers.  Maybe we could get Ronald McDonald and the Cookie Monster to join the team as well. Don’t worry guys, we’ll find a place for you. There is room for everyone in this new world of healthy children and junk food moderation.

Within about 20 miles, the humor slowly returned to James’ eyes and the escort group of cyclists began to dwindle as the Cowboy rode along. I did my best to read the wind and position myself in a way that would provide the greatest amount of slipstream for James, but the direction was constantly shifting, making for a difficult task. We rode hard, trying to be as efficient as possible, racing the sun as it moved slowly across the bright sky. The accompanying group dwindled even smaller – at times consisting of only a few strong cyclists who hung off the back and did their best to draft behind the broad shoulders of the Iron Cowboy. The two wingmen joined us – adding a much appreciated touch of humor to the otherwise overly predictable course.

IOWA WINGMEN

It was amazing to see the transformation in the Cowboy from only an hour before. When James had stopped to refill his bottles at mile 30 he looked and sounded like a broken man. He wanted to quit, and wondered how he was going to continue. He didn’t quit though. He didn’t over-analyze the situation and allow the fear of the unknown to add its strangling effects to the already daunting situation. He simply got back on his bike, looked at the patch of road directly in front of him, and just kept pedaling. An hour later, a transformation had taken place – the local escort struggling to keep up, doing their best to slide into the slipstream behind him. James didn’t do anything different. He just kept riding. He had drifted into a low spot. He knew it was temporary.  He simply accepted the struggle, kept his legs moving, and held on until the agony gradually drifted away.

Struggles are like that. Hard times and pain are cyclical in nature. They sneak in unwelcome. They derail our plans as they never seem to show up at the right time. We tend to get overwhelmed as we wonder how on earth we will be able to bear the agony and continue on. We fear what our family and friends will think if the struggles become big enough to affect our daily lives. “What if I have to ask for help?” we ask. “What if others see me struggling and judge me as weak?” “What will they think of me? What will they think of my family?”

For some reason, we are unable to see past the present.  We don’t know how long the struggle will last and that terrifies us. We fear that it will get worse, and that cripples our efforts to keep fighting.  We peer into the dark tunnel and assume that the heavy blackness will continue forever.

It won’t.

Just as it drifted towards us, it will eventually stop, and drift back away. It works the same way, whether it is that unforgiving 3rd lap in a mile race, the overwhelming urge to give into to our vices, or the agony and fear that accompanies emotional distress and the strangling grip of anxiety.

It will pass.

If you continue to push forward, stepping continually into the darkness, the light will eventually emerge. It will appear gradually – a tiny dot, barely visible in the distance. It will grow brighter and brighter until it bathes you completely. Slowly, you will once again gain control, and have the ability and fortitude to continue onward.

As you enter that state of calm, peaceful rest, you will be armed with a new sense of compassion. The struggles that dropped you to our knees and ripped the calluses from your heart will empower you with an ability to feel. You will realize that the stigmatized “issues” you were dealing with aren’t reserved for the marginalized weaklings who have failed the human experience, rather they are the essence of our human experience – universal struggles that define our mortality and us as human beings. There is nothing wrong with you. You are not a flawed version of what humanity is supposed to be. You are simply a human  -a human in all of its, messy, critical, imperfect, petty, mean, anxious, inadequate, terrified, struggling beauty.

Your struggles will open your eyes, and your ears, and your heart.  As you look around, you will have the ability to see fear, and pain, and struggle in the eyes of complete strangers. You will know them and love them in an instant. There will be no need to explain. Your eyes will simply meet and you will both know.

“I’ve been there before.” Is all you will need to say. “You’re going to be ok. I promise.”

They will look back, and nod. Already knowing it’s true, but needing the reassurance of a stranger to keep them moving through a few more struggling steps.

The largest group to date showed up for the Marathon. They carried James along as they made several loops on a shaded path that circled a series of small froggy looking ponds. The night pressed on and we loaded up the decaying motor home so that we could get a jump on the long drive ahead. We pointed our headlights towards Nebraska and began to push down the road. Within a mile, the familiar bobbing shine of a dozen head lamps appeared in the distance. It was James and the group who had stuck it out with the Cowboy for the final miles of the run. The Iron Cowboy Motor home roared by – horns honking and lights flashing as we passed.

I looked back in the side mirror as the group disappeared behind us. The bright lights that had appeared in the distance, and slowly built in intensity, now drifted away and out of our view.

I stared into the darkness in front of me, realizing that a smile had spread across my face as we bounced down the long black road.

@tommy_rivs

Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Minnesota

MINNESOTA

We woke up to a clear sky in Waconia, Minnesota, the white rising sun promising  a hot day. The world is getting bigger -more expansive-  as we move west from New England. Dense trees still line the horizon, but they are distant now – no longer obstructing the view of the huge sky, or creating an arching tunnel of branches above like they did in New England.

The swim for Minnesota was moved to a 25 meter outdoor pool at Life Time Fitness. I’d heard of this company for a long time, but I’d never actually been to one. It was enormous. MINNESOTA SWIMI stood there in awe imagining what it be like to have a facility like this to train at during the cold winter months in Flagstaff.  The sauna alone was almost a big as my favorite training pool – a 16 meter indoor facility. Of course at 16 meters, all of the turning becomes dizzyingly monotonous, but the water temperature hovers at a warm 84 degrees -for rehabilitative purposes – making it the only venue where I can spend more than an hour during the winter without getting hypothermic.

James stood there on the large sunny deck. It was a new day, but it wouldn’t officially start until he plunged into the water and began to swim. There was hesitancy in his eyes – the kind of nervous dread that creeps in and weighs heavy on its host. It isn’t a fear of the unknown – like a crying naked baby preparing for his first shots on the cold sterile paper that covers the padded chair. It is rather a dread that comes as you prepare for something that you know intimately – fully aware of how excruciating it will be and yet knowing that it is inevitable – having already made up your mind to accept the pain, but still wishing there was another way out.

It’s that same dread that builds up in my chest and throat the hours and minutes before an important race. Not a race where I hope for a personal best or a potential victory, but rather the kind of race that dictates whether I will be able to pay my bills over the next few months. There is an absolute knowledge of how bad it is going to hurt, yet the element of choice has already been removed. It is a burden that accompanies the perfect understanding that there is no plan B – grimacing under the heavy knowledge that I am fit, fast, and have no excuse to not execute. It is not a fear of the unknown, but rather a fear of what is known absolutely. The kind of fear that fills my eyes with anxious fire and has me retching my pre-race meal all over the starting line, just seconds before the gun goes off.

A crowd had gathered, analyzing the Iron Cowboy’s every move. He slowly climbed up onto a starting block to add a bit of flare to the daily routine.  The wingmen Casey and Aaron came through yet again, and added the comedic relief to the otherwise heavy situation. Dawning their worn speedos, they two bearded men climbed up onto the same starting block –using James as an anchor. They carefully balanced as the three of them swayed back and forth, trying hard not to fall, but hoping that if they did, it would be into the water and not onto the hard concrete. James turned to the pool and leaned towards it, falling into a dive where gravity was responsible for most of the work.

MINNESOTA DIVE 1

He was mirrored on both sides by the two wingmen who took the dive with a bit less grace – Aaron was angled out in a way that made one think he was aiming for a neighboring lane, and Casey pointed heavenward, as if attempting to dive into the bright blue sky above, rather than be confined to the laws of physics that subjected the mere mortals around him.

The dive was successful, in that no one was seriously injured. James hit the water first, followed by Aaron and then Casey -who broke the surface of the clear blue with flailing arms that seemed surprised to make contact with water. It was as if Casey was fully certain that if he flapped hard enough, he would actually fly – perhaps a notion he picked up from the 1st grade students he teaches while not engaged in his true vocation as an Iron Cowboy wingman.

MINNESOTA DIVE 2

James began to swim, his tight, sleepy body slowly warming and waking as he pushed along lap after lap. It was apparent to any onlooker that something was not exactly right with his asymmetrical form -his left arm reaching, before catching the water and propelling his body forward, with his right arm  falling into the water half way through the stroke and then sinking to his side.  It had been like this from the very first days of the trip – the crippling shoulder pain forcing him to swim with a single arm.  On the first several days he actually let his right arm hang limply at his side while his left arm did all of the work. Now he lifts his right arm up and forward as much as he can, but it serves only for balance rather than for any forward propulsion.

I had heard about Jame’s struggle in the early journey, but I wasn’t sure how much of it was embellishment or exaggeration. Then I saw James in Flagstaff on day 7 of 50, as he swam next to Casey in Lake Mary – a muddy reservoir that is dry for part of the year. I watched from the shore as they moved through the water. My body covered in goosebumps and a knot formed in my throat as my eyes focused in on James and I saw that he really was swimming with only one arm – the other arm floating lifelessly at his side.  It was in that exact moment that I no longer doubted that James would finish what he started. “He will absolutely complete this,” I told my wife Steph that night after I got home. “I’ve never seen anyone more determined to accomplish anything in my entire life.” I continued. “Barring disaster, James will make it to 50.”

James finished the 2.4 miles in the Life Time pool and struggled to climb down into a heated whirl pool. As he sat there, he looked up with a grimace and said,

“I can’t even describe how excruciating this is. The swim is the hardest part of the entire day.”

He painfully raised his bent elbow to the side, but stopped with a jolt as his arm formed a 70 degree angle at his armpit with the lateral side of his torso.

“I can’t even lift a fork to my mouth.” He continued, a fact that I knew was true from watching him eat over the last several days, a task that consisted more of moving his bearded face towards his stationary hand rather than the opposite. The crippling pain James felt in the first few days of the journey had not let up, rather James just doesn’t talk about it anymore.

“It hurts like hell.” He told me a few days before. “Nothing has changed. The only difference is that I just stopped bitching about it 3 weeks ago.”  he said, with a scowl on his face. “I hate complainers, and there is nothing I can do about it, so now whenever anybody asks, ‘how’s the shoulder?’ my response is, ‘it’s fine’. But it’s not any different than it was in Vegas, or Flagstaff. I’m literally swimming that damn thing with one arm.”

“It’s fine.” I thought to myself as I watched James cringe with each slight movement, his arm tucked protectively against his body, as if being suspended by an invisible sling. By “Fine” James meant that the issue was beyond his control – not, that his shoulder was better. This is a trademark of an individual who is well versed in the concept of human potential and the boundaries of its limitations. James knows that he can only afford to focus on things that are within his control.  Allowing his mind to fixate on anything outside of that realm is simply a waste of energy – both emotional and physical. If there is nothing he can do about an issue, there is no point dwelling on it. The shoulder is in the exact same shape as when he started.

Early on he had allowed hope to enter the picture and he spent a considerable amount of emotional energy bolstering the possibility that there could be an improvement in his shoulder’s function, and a decrease in its pain. After failed attempts, however, he realized that it was no longer worth the effort. His shoulder would continue to cause him excruciating pain and there was nothing he could do about it. The only thing he did have control over, was whether he complained about it or not.

Knowing that complaining would do nothing for his shoulder, he simply kept his mouth shut  and lifted his arm as far out of the water as possible during the swim so that people would stop asking about it.

“Nothing has changed”, I repeated back to myself, allowing the words to sink into my mind, and hopefully burn themselves into my being. “The only difference is that I stopped bitching about it.”

 

With the biggest challenge of the day already complete, James met up with a strong group of cyclists and began the 112 mile ride on a shaded bike path. The day was hot and the accumulative exhaustion began to sink in. As if reading the Iron Cowboy’s mind, the trusty wingmen came to the rescue yet again and lightened the mood. Decked out from head to toe in aero gear and Iron Cowboy kits, Aaron and Casey joined along for the ride, punching a hole in the wind for James atop a bright red tandem road bike.

MINNESOTA TANDEM

The group finished at a lake side park and James quickly transitioned into the run. The sun beat down hard, the light shining off the lake creating an amplifying effect – as if we were small little ants trying in vain to find shelter to avoid the searing beam of light that through a magnifying glass.

MINNESOTA LAKE 1

I ran alongside James pestering him every few minutes to keep drinking, salt crystals forming a shiny white dust on his muscular back.  We ran on paved roads that passed farm land – corn and soybean crops spreading out over the rolling green hills, with red barns, traditional metal windmills and silos popping up between thickets of untamed trees.

MINNESOTA BARN

We ran back along the lake to join up with the large group who had turned out for the Iron Cowboy 5k, including Sunshine from the television show The Biggest Loser.

SUNSHINE

While James addressed the excited crowd, I slipped away towards the lake. I took off my shoes  and fell into the cool water.  The heat, grit, and salt of the arduous run melted away with a pure renewing sensation. It felt like the physical manifestation I had hoped for as a child, but never received, as I underwent the spiritual cleansing of symbolic new birth through baptism by immersion.  I lay there motionless in the Minnesota Lake trying to soak it all up, then arose out of the cool living water – cleansed and reborn. I pushed my dripping feet into my hot dry shoes, and joined the throng as it moved resolutely down the road – running forward in solidarity with the Iron Cowboy.

MINNESOTA LAKE 2I joined James, Lily, Lucy and Sunshine as we ran along together through the upscale neighborhoods that rested alongside the pure, blue lake.  We moved down the road and  everyone listened with excitement as Sunshine told of her experiences as a television star. “What did you win?!” Lily giddily asked. “Well I won a car.” Sunshine calmly responded, “But most importantly, I won my life back.”A spirit of inspiration hovered above the group as we hit the turnaround and pointed our feet back in the direction of the start.

I looked at Sunshine, literally casting a ray of love and light on everyone around her –the choice to change her life playing out directly in front of me as she ran down the long road. She knew that what she had accomplished would only be temporary if she didn’t continue down the same path that had brought her to her present state. It comes about through a consistent effort over a long period of time – a very long time; a lifetime in fact.

Be patient as you start your journey. Transformation is possible but it takes hard work. As the Iron Cowboy reminds us, it requires “doing lots of little things, consistently, over a long period of time”. Remember that when you feel like you’ve reached a plateau and you are struggling to stay motivated. Just because the results aren’t coming as fast as you would like, doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong. The key is to keep moving in the right direction.

Remember James.

Put your energy into elements that are within your reach and refuse to complain about things that are outside of your control. Think long term. If you have only recently arrived on your path to self improvement, the first thing you need to change is your concept of time. Think no longer in terms of seconds, minutes, hours and days. Think rather in terms of weeks, months and years. The path to change is one that requires slow, steady, consistent, adaptive progression – over a lifetime.

Remember Sunshine. Take responsibility for your choices, keep a smile on your face, and win your life back.

 

Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Wisconsin

WISCONSIN

PC: @jessakae
PC: @jessakae

The kind folks in Indiana were unable to take care of the laundry list of motor home issues during the short window of time that was available. That meant that we departed from our only potential saving grace with the motor home in the same state as when we arrived. I pulled another shift driving the big beast as we left Indiana and moved west towards Wisconsin. It was a little less nerve racking this time -a combination of becoming more familiar with the weight and balance of the machine, but also a renewed confidence that emerged as I thought back on my summer days as an illegal teenage truck driver.

I awoke with the family and the rest of the crew in the parking lot of the Prairie Athetic Club in Sun Prairie Wisconsin. We opened the door to the motor home and took the jarring 3 foot plunge down to the pavement  below – the mechanical stair case still refusing to leave the comfort of its retracted position.

There was a big commotion at the outdoor swim venue some 50 meters away. A bolt of panic shot through the eyes of wingmen Casey and Aaron.

“Daaaa! What time is it?!” Casey yelled. “Did we oversleep?!”

The two wingmen jumped into action, frantically running towards the crowd that lined the pool – terrified that they had potentially slept through their morning duties of transforming James into the Iron Cowboy.

When we reached the pool deck, the Iron Cowboy  was already in the water, but he met us all with smiles and a jovial demeanor – a stark contrast to my own face, still partially asleep. The wingmen had not failed, rather James had planned to surprise the crew by taking advantage of the extra hour by getting an early start on the swim.

Casey and Aaron expressed their relief the same way anybody would – they quickly changed into their Iron Cowboy speedos, climbed up onto the large overlooking deck, and began to dance provocatively to the beat of the blaring music. Onlookers, live news streams, and local athletes all watched as the two wingmen thrusted and gyrated on their makeshift stage – some 10 feet above the lane where James was swimming.  The finale was a pair of perfectly synchronized cannon balls, which made wakes that undulated through the neighboring lanes, and splashes that reached the far edges of the pool. I briefly posted a video of the ordeal, but soon thought better of it and quickly removed it from the World Wide Web. When Casey isn’t a wingman, he is a 1st grade teacher. The last thing I wanted was for him to suffer occupational repercussions if his impressive twerking abilities went viral.

WINGMEN WISCON

As James gave himself a short break between laps, a local news agency took advantage of the pause and launched into a live interview. James looked up at the camera, doing his best to appear awake and speak loud enough for the microphone to pick up his voice.

WIsconsin swim

 

 

Near the end of the live conversation, the anchor simply asked “Why?” James looked back and responded with an explanation that highlighted childhood obesity and the threat it poses to the current generation. He paused briefly, then summed up his response with a matter-of-fact  declaration:

“We are doing this to promote childhood obesity.” He then turned around, and pushed off the wall continuing the 2.4 mile swim.

Everyone glanced around with bewildered eyes and furrowed brows.

“Uh…” Sunny interjected with a light hearted laugh.  “He means to raise awareness of childhood obesity. Not to promote it.”

The crew in Wisconsin was phenomenal. Every single moment of the day was intricately laid out in a neatly organized binder. There was a plan B, and C, and D, and on and on through the entire alphabet in the event that something went wrong.

Huge clouds rolled in and blanketed the sky as James met up with the local bike escort and prepared to depart.  By the time the group pulled out of T1, rain drops began to gently fall in a light drizzle that didn’t let up the entire bike course. A solid crew braved the rain and stuck with James over the 112 mile distance. As he entered T2, James dismounted his bike and calmly, yet urgently, said, “Turn on all the heaters in the Subaru. I need to warm up.”

WISCONSIN HYPOTHERM

The threat of hypothermia that had manifest itself in the oceans of Vermont, was back again. For a solid 30 minutes, James sat in the front seat of the car, eating his pre marathon meal as the heaters bathed his body in hot air, slowly raising his core temperature.

A large group waited to escort James out onto the Marathon course. Among the runners was  a local endurance athlete named Annie Weiss, who had made the trip up from Milwaukie for a chance to run with the Cowboy. Annie is an athlete who I have coached for a long time,  but I have never had the chance to meet her in person. She is, without a doubt, the most coachable individual I have ever worked with – putting in huge volume during the cold winter months of Wisconsin -most of it indoors. It was so great to finally meet her and talk about something other than training. She is in the process of transitioning from the roads to the ultra marathons of the trails. She has already had some great success, but her best days are still to come. Remember her name –she will be one of the greats.

James finally warmed up in the makeshift sauna, but he was pulled away in another direction before he could start the marathon. Financial and  logistical components, necessary to keep the Iron Cowboy team moving, required James to take a phone call and talk directly with a bank agent. The rain continued to dump outside and the huge crowd took shelter under trees, awnings, and tents, while James was transferred from one individual to another in the impossibly frustrating game of getting technical work done over a phone. It was mind numbing to see him struggle with such tedious – yet necessary – responsibilities, while in the midst of an undertaking of such epic proportions.  In my mind I imagined the conversation I would sarcastically have with James.

“Why did the Ironman take so long today James?” I would ask.

To which he would respond, “Oh that. Yeah,  I had to spend a half hour in a sauna during T2 to recover  from hypothermia, and then I was put on hold  by my bank and had to wait 45 minutes to receive  authorization to continue the race.”

“Typical.” I would respond with a nod, “Don’t you hate it when that happens?”

Wisconsin waiting

The soggy crowd applauded as James finally exited the motor home to begin the Marathon. The rain continued off and on as we made long loops on the bike path that surrounded Lake Monona. The body of water got its name from a Chippewa word meaning beautiful – “a fitting name”, I thought to myself as I ran along and admired the reflective sheen of the water, the flowered lily pads, and the thick trees that lined the shore. It wasn’t particularly grand, or breathtaking – there probably weren’t post cards boasting the scene, but as we skirted the meandering edge, mist rising up from the warm asphalt, the simple adjective used to describe the lake seemed to fit. “Beautiful” I said under my breath, nodding as I saw it for myself.

WIS LILY PADS

After one of the 6 mile loops, the Iron Cowboy and I dropped back behind the excited crowd, and for a couple of miles he was just James.  We chatted as we ran. He laughed and cried and cussed and vented about the struggles of the last several days. It’s still hard for him – there are sections throughout each day that seem absolutely overwhelming. His emotions are raw and come flooding to the surface with a single nudge. He is spent, but he continues to push through the struggle.  At the same time though, some of it has become almost comically easy for him. His body has adapted in ways that few people in all the world have ever experienced.  “Let’s just do a recovery Ironman today.” he jokes, any time the day seems to roll along without any major issues.

As we moved slowly and efficiently along a dark shaded area, he turned and told me about some of the ridiculous questions he has received over the last week, and how exhausting it is at times to stay diplomatic.  He laughed like a child as he recounted a conversation he had been a part of a few days before on the bike. An inquisitive cyclist had rolled up next to him and asked,

“So, uh…after you decided you were going to do the 50 Ironman distance triathlons in 50 days in 50 states, how did you decide which states to include in the 50?”

“Uh… … … what?!” James responded with a confused tone.

“How did you decide which 50 of the 50 states you would do?” the cyclist repeated.

“Um…I uh…I looked at a map and there were…50 of them?” James replied in disbelief, trying hard to soften the response.

“Why not do 5 more and knock off all of the Canadian provinces while you’re at it? the cyclist continued.

“Five provinces?” James asked.

“Yeah! Do 5 more and get all the Canadian provinces as well.”

“There aren’t just five provinces in Canada.” James responded matter-of-factly, losing his ability to humor the cyclist with each follow up comment.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure there are.” The cyclist countered, clearly not knowing that James was actually born and raised in Cananda, where he had successfully graduated 3rd grade.

“No.” James simply responded while shaking head and pressing his lips together. “There are 10.” He continued, more to himself than anyone else. “10 Canadian provinces, and 3 Canadian territories.”

We joined back up with the group, James running a bit lighter now, as if the session to vent had lightened a bit of the load he was carrying as the Iron Cowboy.

A huge crowd had gathered for the 5k. James was met with loud applause as a spectator handed him a cheese cowboy hat, while Bucky – the official mascot from the University of Wisconsin, energized the receiving crowd.

CHeese hat

James put on the cheese hat and stood up on a small stage, flanked on one side by Bucky and on the other side by his trusty speed-clad wingmen.  He shared his message of making a change for the current generation, the audience hanging on every word as rain poured down and drenched the entire scene.

BUCKY

The speech concluded with wild applause and then just like that, the entire mass transferred out of the metal bleachers and began to move seamlessly as a single unit into the 5k run. Families ran together, encouraging their children – some just barely having learned to walk. When the 3.1 miles was complete, a solid group continued into the final 13 miles of the marathon – moving along  through the darkness like a band of urgent miners, bright beams bouncing along from our hand held  lights and head lamps.

Rain Boots

I stopped with one lap to go and wiped the grit from my body with a damp towel.  We loaded up the motor home and made preparations to leave. James would follow along in the van after the completion of the marathon. We were all tired and anxious to hit the road. There seemed to be a sense of urgency to get out of the rain, check Wisconsin off the list, and hope for a dry start in the next state. Casey and Aaron packed all of the essentials into their specific reserved locations, while Sunny got all of the kiddos tucked away and ready for the night. I sat down in the large driver seat and set the GPS for Waconia Minnesota. I settled in preparing for the next couple of hours, looked down the dark road, and turned the key.

Nothing.

I made sure everything was right and tried again.

Still nothing -the battery was dead.

“Well…” I thought. “We better add that to the list.”

Without a word Aaron and Casey arose from their seats. Just as they opened the door and jumped out into the rain, James and his escort were finishing the Marathon. A local runner from the group saw the problem and without even resting from the 26.2 miles, he sprinted towards his truck. Within a few minutes the motor home was roaring it’s sweet mechanical roar – Morse code beeping loudly in the back ground.

Although I have only been with the Iron Cowboy and his crew for a couple of weeks, this seems to be the theme of the entire journey.   (Overcoming challenges I mean, not deciphering messages in Morse code.) This feat would be impossible if it were not for the strength of Sunny and her amazing children, Aaron and Casey (the wingmen), the rest of the transient crew, and the incredible people in every state who don’t hesitate for a moment to do absolutely everything they can to help the Iron Cowboy on his quest. I have never witnessed a more collaborative, selfless effort by so many different people. That is a necessary component to accomplishing anything great. That same spirit of selfless collaboration is the key to affecting positive change in any societal structure – be it an interpersonal relationship, a family, a business or organization, or even an entire nation.

We as human beings, are social creatures. We are, by our very nature, designed to rely on one another. Have you ever wondered why it feels good to help another person? It is literally woven into our DNA. It is what we are designed at a genetic level to do.

Remember that the next time you need a hand. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those around you and petition their help as you strive to make improvements in your own life, and in the world around you.  Most importantly though, remember that the struggles of humanity are universal. There is not a single individual – young or old – who isn’t struggling in some capacity. Everyone of us has both the ability, and the responsibility to reach out and help. There is no limit to the good we can do if we forget our own self interests, and selflessly work in collaboration with those around us.

Look for opportunities to serve. We will find them on a daily basis. We don’t have to travel to the far corners of the globe to make a change.  We can simply start with the issues that lie directly in front of us and do whatever we – no matter how large or small.  We can smile. We can take time to listen.  We can lend a word of encouragement. We can decide in our relationships and in our families that we will make transformative choices that will lead to a better life.

We can even run 26.2 miles in the rain alongside a bearded Cowboy,  and then dash to the rescue of his cold and tired family with a big ol’ truck and a  worn out pair of jumper cables.

Simply do what you can do. If all of us do what we can, it will be enough.

@tommy_rivs

Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Indiana

INDIANA

MUNCIE JAMES

Last night as we pulled out of Michigan, I got my first taste of driving the Iron Cowboy motor home. It’s a big beast of a thing with a heavy top and tired suspension. For some reason, the entire world decided to convene on the same chewed up stretch of highway in the middle of the night and drive their 18 wheelers towards Indiana. We must have somehow missed the Evite. Lucky for us, we showed up anyway.

It was the first time I had ever driven a motor home, and the fact that James’ entire family was on board didn’t put my mind at ease. Somehow though, it felt oddly familiar – as if I’d done it many times before. I racked my memory, but nothing seemed to emerge. Then I recalled being a young teenager, illegally driving huge trucks full of produce between farms and fruit stands out in rural Eastern Oregon. The first time I ever challenged a muscle car at an intersection was actually from the tall seat of a big rig. I glanced over at the tiny Camaro, and revved the engine. A middle aged man with a flat top craned his neck as he looked up into my youthful face.

He chuckled.

I snarled.

It was on.

When the light turned green I quickly let out the clutch as I slammed on the gas. A huge black cloud arose from the smoke stack above me and the engine roared. Tires squealed as the Camaro peeled out and began to disappear down the long stretch of road. “I’m coming for you!” I yelled, maxing out first gear at a blazing speed of 4 mph. I quickly shifted – the truck shuttering as it fell into 2nd gear. “Bring it you sissy little toy! I’ve still got four more gears if you count reverse!!” I shouted in a hollow threat. The giant truck rumbled along, watermelons bouncing out of their boxes in the trailer behind. The rumble turned into a terrifying shake as I reached 5th gear at a face melting speed of 43 mph. I finally accepted defeat but only because the whole machine threatened to fall apart if I pushed it any faster. “You can have this one.” I thought, looking down the road at the tiny spec of a car – enjoying the thrill of my budding career as a drag racer. “Try me again when I’m not hauling 6 tons of melon.”

As the night rolled on, we rotated drivers in the Iron Cowboy motor home. Amidst the sleep deprived delirium, Aaron got all sentimental about his platonic relationship with both his fellow partner in crime, Casey, and the mechanical beast that was transporting us into the sleeping state of Indiana.

Aaron: “In this RV, we are like a monkey and a banana.”

Casey: “What the hell does that mean?”

Aaron: “I don’t know, I guess it’s like we are one with each other.”

Casey: “What?!”

We arrived in a small town in Indiana in the middle of the night – an hour before the swim. The little hamlet was where the motor home originally came from, and the wingmen hoped to take care of some serious mechanical issues before the trip resumed. The 8 of us tumbled out of the motor home into a small hotel room – the wingmen and I spreading out on the floor, while 4 of the 5 kids tucked into a single queen. James slept in the Van as Jordan and Jessa drove through the night to the swim start. When we awoke, Casey and Aaron dropped the Motor Home off at the repair shop and hoped for the best -hesitant to get their hopes up considering the state of the vehicle. It turns out that completing 50 Ironman distance triathlons, in 50 days, in 50 states is hard – especially on the live-in support vehicle.

Casey posted a diagnostic report of the following:

  • The generator went out
  • The expanding “slid-out” with the bed, does not slide out
  • The stairs no longer extend/retract
  • The fan belt is destroyed and makes a Morse code sound when we turn on the A/C

After the drop off, the three of us drove through Amish country in an attempt to meet up with the Iron Cowboy for the bike portion of the day. The landscape was covered in big fields of corn -the low lying areas covered in water as if the crop was planted on top of existing swamps. Between the fields were huge farm houses with Swiss architecture, and accompanying barns that boasted a meticulously intricate craftsmanship. Amid the signs of civilization there were no motorized vehicles – rather the farms were scattered with individuals on foot, struggling to push huge loads of hay in oversized wheel barrows. Along the sides of the road were signs that told passing motorists to be on the lookout for horse drawn carriages. Within a few minutes we approached one, the orange triangular reflector that hung on the back, in stark contrast to the horse and carriage that seemed to emerge from a distant past. Riding along was a sturdy man with a beard that would put any hipster to shame, and a few women with  high necked, long sleeve dresses black black bonnets covering their long hair. I was instantly in awe and in love with everything I saw. Right in front of us, a large one story barn arose out of a field that bordered the road. Bold black letters on the white roof spelled out the words, “LIVE UNITED” –  a message that attempted to reconcile the devout, yet industrious life of the past, with the narcissistic, technological frenzy of the present.LIVE UNITEDAs we drove, Casey and Aaron discussed the likely possibility that the repair shop would not be able to meet the needs of the Iron Cowboy motor home within this short time frame. We talked about potential worse case scenarios and the possibility of fixing the mechanical issues ourselves. Casey is convinced that the fan belt – the one that incessantly screams Morse code messages when the A/C is running – is actually trying to communicate with us.

“If only we could decipher the message!” he exclaimed as we drove along. “It would either tell us what is wrong with the vehicle, and give us intricate details as to how we can fix the problem. Or…It would lead us to a treasure and we’ll all be rich.” – both fortuitous scenarios.

We met up at the location of this morning’s swim – the Tuhey Pool in Muncie Indiana – which would also serve as the home base for the entire day. As we approached, a reporter from the local news channel emerged from behind her SUV. She had the pleasant air of confidence that you would expect from a reporter, but what set her apart is that she was dressed from head to toe in cycling attire and accompanied by a sleek road bike. She took an ethnographic approach to her story today, covering the swim  by swimming alongside the Iron cowboy, and covering the bike, by cycling with the huge peloton for a large portion of the 112 miles – GoPro in hand.

MUNCIE REPORTER

As bikes began to trickle in, we got word that one of the cyclists – a man named Randy – had gone down extremely hard and was in very bad shape. Apparently a branch had somehow flipped up into the spokes of his back wheel, the jolt forcing his front wheel off the road and into the gravel. The abrupt change in terrain launched the bike into the air, while throwing Randy over the handle bars.  He fell hard on his shoulder and head, and although he was wearing a helmet, he lay  motionless for several moments. When finally came to, he had lost sensation throughout his entire body. An ambulance quickly arrived on the scene and he was rushed to the local hospital. He was later transferred to Park View Hospital in Ft. Wayne. He has since completely regained feeling and function, with the exception of his left arm and hand.  James and all of his crew are deeply concerned for Randy and wish him a full recovery.

Despite the horrible accident, the large group of cyclists rallied together and brought James through the 112 miles in good time. The sun beat down hot through a blue sky. Dark tan lines appeared on the arms of the legs of the cyclists as they stripped out of their kits, and into their running gear. There was a constant buzz about Randy and his condition. Everyone was concerned and a bit shaken by the experience, knowing that it easily could have been one of them. Some of the athletes who were present when Randy crashed had accompanied him to the hospital. There seemed to be a hesitancy among the rest of the athletes -a heavy question as to what was the appropriate thing to do in a moment like this.

The crowd swelled as more athletes joined the Iron Cowboy for the Marathon. James’s asked about Randy as he prepared for the run, and listened with deep concern. “Ok.” he said with a nod -the news troubling him deeply. James pushed his torn and battered feet into his running shoes and looked down the road as he laced them up. He walked towards the hesitant crowd who saw his eyes and in an instant, knew the right thing to do – “Just keep moving forward.

The crowd parted as James approached, and enveloped around him. “Let’s go.” he calmly said, motioning with his head towards the marathon course.  As the slow walk evolved into a run, an odd thing happened. Rather than allow the accident on the bike to bring down the energy of the large group, Randy’s crash seemed to do the opposite. A sense of unity swelled as fresh legs combined with weary legs and the large glistening throng moved resolutely down the sun-baked road.MUNCIE 5k

It was as if the run represented the personification of struggles, challenges, and obstacles in general – the kind of opposition that makes an entrance anytime an individual, or a group of individuals, set out to make a change for the better. The opposition’s weapon is a call for inactivity. It manifests itself through fear, passivity, and trepidation – effects that today, had threatened to sideline the athletes and silence the message of change, human potential, and a better future for our children. The group realized as they ran along, that the correct response was action. It was what James knew all along. It’s what started this whole thing in the first place.  MUNCIE MARATHON All thoughts were on Randy as the solid group pushed resolutely into the setting sun. There was a unity and a fire that radiated through the crowd. It was as if every stride was a message – a collective action that symbolized a shared internal conviction. It was the same conviction that moved each of them, including Randy, to wake up this morning and accompany the Iron Cowboy.  Each had overcome their discomfort, and silenced the voices inside that encouraged retreat.  With every struggling step, the group of runners voiced their stance – as if staring down that embodied version of life’s obstacles, and solemnly declaring: “We will not back down. We will not be moved. We will not retreat. We will not surrender.  We see you. We acknowledge your strength, but we’re not afraid – because together we are stronger. We will strive. We will fight. And we will win.”

@tommy_rivs

 

*If you would like to donate to Randy’s recovery fund, please visit the link below:

https://www.crowdrise.com/randyvanderfordrecoveryfund/fundraiser/shannonnierman

Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Michigan

MICHIGAN

@jessakae
PC: @jessakae

The sheer numbers and the electric energy of the Iron Cowboy 5k in Ohio had left James energized. We drove out late and followed the dotted line of the map that cut west across Ohio towards Michigan. Darkness had descended some 3 hours earlier and the lightning bugs had made their grand entrance. My heart ached as they hit the huge windshield of the motor home – leaving a smattering of glowing phosphorescent blotches on the dirty window. It felt as if some mystical species, like a fairy population, was being destroyed – one bright splat at a time. I remembered that old Peter Pan movie; the one where Peter is actually a woman dressed up like Pan, and in an attempt to save a dwindling tinker bell, he/she petitions the audience to clap as hard as possible. I never understood how that worked, but as I child I clapped with all the fervor I could muster. Tonight though, I didn’t clap as we drove through Ohio. Instead I just sat there –bouncing on a big chair with poor suspension, somberly watching as the little pixies died.

It was early morning when we pulled into Benton Harbor Michigan. The original plan was to swim in Lake Michigan, but the wind was howling and white caps dotted the undulating water. James wisely opted out of the extra challenge, and chose instead to go with the backup plan at an indoor swim facility. He rolled out of bed with tired eyes, and said,

“When I finish each night, I have no idea how I’m going to do another one of these. But I just wake up the next morning and start to swim. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time -nom, nom, nom.”

MICHIGAN

 

He was met by two different news agencies – NBC and ABC. He conducted a couple of quick interviews as he ate breakfast and readied for the 2.4 miles. The newscasters were a bit star struck – putting on their professional voices and over-dramatized facial expressions as the camera rolled, but quickly melting into adoring fans as soon as the record button was shut off. “Oh my gosh. You’re probably the coolest person I have ever met.” the reporter from NBC gushed.MICH REPORTERJames quietly went to work, while onlookers lined the pool for a chance to get a glimpse of the Iron Cowboy. I swam in a parallel lane for a couple thousand yards – more than anything to just wash away the grime from the last 24 hrs and to wake up my body for the day to come.

The bike course left from Jean Klock Park. A large parking lot above a wide sandy beach on the shore of Lake Michigan.  (I’ll be honest, it looked like an ocean to me. It even had seagulls so…)

MICIGAN BIKE

The wind blew strong towards the shore, filling the air with misty clouds that moved with speeds that made you think you were watching a time lapse video. James ate another quick meal and then stuffed his battered feet into his cycling shoes. TOESThere were two Sheriffs on motorcycles, who escorted the group for the entire day. The path left the sandy shoreline and moved into the flat country side. The road was lined with an assortment of small, white, yellow, and orange flowers, as well as tall purple clover blossoms that towered above the green grasses.  The land was covered in corn fields and small farms with blueberry bushes, neatly aligned in long strait rows. Homemade wooden signs told of “You pick” options for the berries, and offered farm fresh eggs for $2.00 a dozen.

SHERIFF

As we rolled into the second hour, the clouds that had threatened rain all morning, began to open as a thick, wet mist descended on all of us.  James, unphased by the change in weather, turned to me and said, “Lots of nice houses out here. It makes me happy every time I see nice houses. When I finish this thing, I’m going to build Sunny her dream house. That’s what keeps me going when it gets hard. I just think of Sunny and I imagine the house I’m going to build her.” Rain dripped for his face as he looked off again into the country side and continued pedaling – his mind far away in an entirely different time and place.

I rode ahead to get a picture of the group, then settled behind the pack to edit the shot and send it to James, as he had requested.  I met up with one of the riders who was sitting back, enjoying the relative calm of not being caught up in the middle of an ever shifting peloton. We kept the group within sight, knowing that it would only take a few minutes of hard riding to join back up. But then a problem arose. We pulled up to four way stop, surrounded on all sides by tall rows of corn and short little hills that left us unsure of the correct path. He nodded towards one of the roads and we both put in a solid 5 minute effort – taking turns breaking the wind- in an attempt to catch back up to the group. The road opened up with a long half mile view and we quickly realized that we were on the wrong road – we had just sprinted for 2 miles in the wrong direction. Oops. We pulled out a phone, looked at a map, and got back on course,  but by now, the group was some 4 miles away. “Alright,” I said, “let’s move.” We spent the next hour in hot pursuit of the group – pushing hard on the flats and sprinting out of the saddle on the climbs. Rain poured down and stung as it hit my eyes. It was on those hard climbs that I realized a deficiency in my current bike strength. As I sprinted hard, my legs burned but my heart rate and respiratory rate remained low. That is an indication that my aerobic capacity is disproportionately strong compared to my current level of muscular strength and muscular endurance. This didn’t make me upset, rather it simply served as a sign post for an area that I need to direct some attention during the next block of training. If we are perceptive and honest with ourselves, our weaknesses can serve as pathways towards success. Rather than be discouraged when you notice a deficiency, let it motivate you. Let it serve you by directing the path that you should take as you work towards a better you.

I broke away from my riding partner on one of the climbs, but I didn’t stop. Today it felt invigorating to bump into that familiar agonizing burn and then push towards it. Sometimes I get the urge to embrace it and see how much I can make myself hurt. Today was one of those days. Because the urge came on naturally, the suffering was exhilarating and cathartic, rather than emotionally and physically draining.  It isn’t always that way. Some days, I don’t feel like going hard – so I don’t. The desire to cruise along comfortably on those days, is an indication that my body wants recovery. I try my best to listen to what it needs, and do what I can to accommodate. That is an important component to finding balance, satisfaction, and joy in your training.

As I sprinted up another long climb, I glanced to my left and saw a huge piece of landing gear from an old commercial airplane. There was big sign with bold letters that shouted, “YES!! We have Casters!” I was immediately filled with a combination of relief and bewilderment. “Phyewf!” I thought. If ever I need a caster I’ll know just where to come. But…what the hell is a caster?”

Another mile down the road I looked up and saw the face of an enormous tiger staring down at me from a bill board. “I am not a rug.” the caption read, followed by a somber message about the serious threat posed by tiger poaching, and how only a few thousand tigers remained in the wild. I was shocked. I never knew that there was a serious tiger poaching problem in Michigan. “No wonder we haven’t seen any today.” I thought, as I tried to wrap my head around the whole scenario.

TIGER

I pushed up one final climb as I neared the end of the loop to meet back up with James and the pack. Just as I was reaching the top, a grey Volvo Cross Country passed me on the left. My eyes caught a glimpse of a black bumper sticker as it pulled away. “PRE LIVES” it said in bold white letters. “Yes!” I thought, remembering the poster on my wall of Steve Prefontaine with the exact same inscription.  “That’s what I like to see. A little bit of love for a home grown Oregon boy – all the way over here in Michigan.”

I briefly met up with the group as they headed out for their second 56 mile loop. They worked hard to keep James moving forward and with his wheels in contact with the road – a task that was more difficult than it might seem as James began to sway and nod off, the exhaustion threatening his consciousness with every moment. It was a serious challenge, but James managed to finish without falling asleep and crashing on road again.

The fatigue built throughout the day. It was apparent in Jame’s face as he spoke to the large group who had gathered for the Iron Cowboy 5k, held during the middle of the marathon. He spoke words of inspiration as the group looked on and listened intently. He shares a similar message with every state, but today, the words seemed to come from deep within. He was weary with the kind of accumulative fatigue that makes your emotions raw and puts you on the edge of tears. Perhaps in the same way my wife Steph cries during television commercials when she is pregnant. We saw that same raw emotion tonight as James spoke about his 5 children and his desire to make a better world -not only for them, but for all of us, and for all of our children.

MICHIGAN SPEECH

He challenged the large group to makes changes in their lives and in the choices that bring them, and their children down. He then gave the key to making the efforts successful:

“Do a lot of little things, consistently, over a long period of time.”

He didn’t ask people to radically alter the entire course of their lives. He didn’t hate on any particular vice or habit. He simply encouraged all present to make little changes. He didn’t need to outline the particulars. He knew that each person is familiar with their own challenges. He knew that the faults and deficiencies that we each possess were already known to each of us individually. James knows that bringing about change isn’t a matter of pointing out flaws -generally we are already painfully aware of what we aren’t good at. Instead, he wisely focused his message on helping those present to realize that it is indeed possible to make a change.  From his own experience, both in life as well as in athletics, James knows that the best way for change to come about is through simple choices.  If it’s not simple, it won’t be sustainable. If it’s not sustainable, it won’t bring about any lasting change.

MICHIGAN GROUP

That is the reason for the Iron Cowboy message. Find something that you want to be better at and work towards it.  Do the little things. Do them consistently. Do them over a long period of time. If you fall off the horse, don’t turn around in frustration and shoot the poor thing. Simply dust yourself off, recommit, and climb back into the saddle.  As you find success, you will be motivated to improve other areas of your life. Keep it simple. Keep focused on all the little things. The transformative effect you experience is contagious and others will be motivated by your story. Your children will see your efforts and will be molded by your positive choices. That is how an entire society is changed. That is why James is doing what he is doing. That is at the heart of the Iron Cowboy message.

@tommy_rivs