The beauty of pursuing big goals is that we sometimes succeed. But only sometimes. Often things don’t quite turn out as planned, and at times we fail completely. Eventual victory is like chocolate – a sweet dessert whose core ingredient is the bitterness of those earlier defeats. But as any kid who has ever tried sneaking a bite of 100% cacao baking chocolate knows, that bitterness on its own can be overwhelming, and momentarily make someone question whether they even like chocolate at all.
At this year’s Spine Race, I didn’t even make it 20% of the way to the finish. I hadn’t begun to experience the true difficulties that make the Spine or any other multi-day event what they are. I missed out on what was perhaps once in a lifetime conditions in terms of both beauty and performance. I achieved none of my goals, learned very little, and traveled a great distance to do so (although I at least combined it with a trip for work). Like I started doing with last year’s Tor Des Geants, I’ve created a handy little visual summary below for anyone who doesn’t want the detail. The race is south to north, so start at the bottom. For the full-size image click here.
In 2015 I took my first shot at Barkley. Like most things I’ve done, from my first marathon to my first triathlon to my first startup, it was supposed to be one and done – to go out and give it my best shot and see how I could do. But also like those other things, I didn’t feel afterwards that it had been the best I could do. So in 2016 I tried again. I seemed to be so close to a finish that in 2017 I went back. I vivdly remember Gary Robbins and I discussing that year, as we ascended Stallion Mountain: “if you finish will you ever do it again?” The answer for both of us was a pretty emphatic no.
It took me months to post anything here on my failed Wainwrights attempt and my Tor Des Geants DNF. Partially, I didn’t really know what to say, or if there was anything worth saying. And partially, things just kept getting in the way. When I first started I didn’t even finish the first paragraph because I had a rather sudden onset of symptoms from a virus I got from one of my kids.
I thought about combining everything into one post, but instead I kept things separate with this post to tie them together and look at the bigger picture. According to Robbie Britton’s excellent 1,001 Running Tips, my posts should be kept below 1,000 words. I thought that by cheating and splitting it into three posts I could get by. Spoiler alert: I failed miserably… they’re all over 1,000 words. 😅
I don’t feel like there’s a lot to say about my Tor Des Geants race itself, but the outcome is something that I think is worth sharing. It could happen to anyone doing these things and people need to be more aware of it.
The race is a 200+ mile lap around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps with around 110K feet of ascent, and this was my first time putting on an actual race bib since the Spine in January 2020. It’s the most beautiful course I’ve been on, has amazing local support, and the start/finish of Courmayeur has pizza and gelato around every corner. The Aosta Valley also isn’t just special for the mountains, or the food, but also the people. I cannot thank my Aostan crew enough for their support of a complete stranger who didn’t even speak their language, especially to Marlène Jorrioz who took on the role of crew chief. As with Wainwrights and Pennine Way, I’ll be sending them each a tiny token of appreciation through Trees Not Tees.
This is by far the longest it’s ever taken me to do a post on one of my adventures. It’s now nearly five months since my attempt at the Wainwrights. I don’t know that I have a lot to add beyond what I initially posted on social media, and a lot of this is copy/paste from that, but I at least wanted to collect it all here in one place if for nothing more than my own future reference (and planning 😉).
The Wainwrights are a set of 214 peaks in the Lake District described in the seven books that make up Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. The route can vary a bit, but most recent attempts have been slight variations of what Steven Birkinshaw developed for breaking Joss Naylor’s record in 2014, which amounts to somewhere around 320 miles and 110K feet of ascent. Steve’s record was broken by Paul Tierney in 2019, which was then broken by Sabrina Verjee this year in a time of 5 days, 23 hours, and 49 minutes. It was also completed this year by Chris Gaskin in 11 days 11 hours fully unsupported (alone, carrying absolutely everything needed to finish from the start except water from natural sources).
I don’t think there’s really anything I can say here that I didn’t say at this point last year before setting off on this adventure. In a way, the very fact that I failed at my first attempt at “The Grand Round” shows that it was a good challenge – one that forced me to learn, grow, and develop a better plan. If a grand challenge doesn’t teach us anything, doesn’t force us to improve ourselves or develop a better strategy, then was it really all that grand?
I wasn’t foolish enough to think I was indestructible, but I also didn’t know where my breaking point was. Over the past two years I’ve had a pretty heavy race schedule, with an ultra, long FKT attempt, or iron distance triathlon about every six weeks. And for the most part they went pretty well, great even. Sure, I was just hanging on through some of them (most recently, Lavaredo) knowing that I wasn’t in the best condition for them, but I had never in my life DNF’d a “normal” race (i.e. Barkley and The Grand Round excluded).
I did not achieve what I was aiming for on The Grand Round, but I ended up with more than I could have hoped for. I have never been more proud of a failed pursuit or gained as many unexpected positive outcomes. Of course I wish a few things had gone differently and that I had been able to finish. I’m an overly competitive goal-driven Type A perfectionist who is horrible company for a “casual” game of anything, and falling short will always gnaw at me. I went out to seek a challenge, though, and based on the criteria I laid out I got exactly what I was seeking. If everything was predictable, there would be no excitement or passion, no adventure, no exploration. In a way, the plan has to be for things to not go according to plan.
As it stands I had an incredible adventure and learned a great deal, both specific to the challenge itself and more broadly applicable to my own life. I also learned that there is at least one thing that I can reliably plan on: the passion and selfless support of the fell running community. I’m still in a bit of disbelief at their generosity, and I come from a place that I’d say epitomizes southern hospitality. I’ll tell you what, though, we sure ain’t got no monopoly on kindness.
You can’t always get what you want But if you try sometimes well you might find You get what you need
We’ve all at some point or another had those lyrics stuck in our head, and we’ve all probably had a number of situations where they were quite appropriate. I think a key word that really gets overlooked, though, is try. You don’t just sit there and have what you need fall into your lap.
I have no idea what this post is going to end up looking like. I just have some thoughts that I want to attempt to get out, and we’ll see where it goes.
I’ll also preface this by saying that this is 100% my opinion and feelings on what I do and why. As far as I’m concerned, what anyone else does is completely up to them and none of my business as long as they’re not endangering others. And that’s my main goal I guess is to try to ensure that people aren’t needlessly doing stupid things for the wrong reasons or without the proper training and preparation on account of me. I have 3 kids, and after seeing my 4 year old scramble up a briar and scree-covered 60 degree slope like a mountain goat a few days ago I know that there are enough problems my genes will cause without adding me setting a poor example.
A large number of condolences went to extremely strong women in 2018, so much so that laz dubbed it the ‘year of the woman.’ Unfortunately some of those strong women didn’t make it to the starting line for one reason or another, but there were still some very good contenders in the field this year. Quite a big deal has been made over the years about the lack of a woman finisher at Barkley, and laz loves to get people (and especially talented women) riled up by saying a woman can’t finish.
The main question that arose out of the previous post was, “what is just the right amount of difficulty?” I advocated for setting stretch goals where failure is a likely outcome. I still believe that more benefit can be realized by falling short of a stretch goal than by overachieving on an easy one, but just sending yourself on fool’s errands isn’t very productive. There’s a tl;dr at the bottom of the post if you’d rather skip to the bullet point version.
This isn’t a Western States post, but it’s one that it inspired. This also steals almost entirely from a talk I gave a couple of months back for my high school’s honors night (if you really want to see the video, it’s at the bottom). I hadn’t planned on posting it, but with some of the discussion I’ve seen this week I felt like I should.
In the weeks leading up to the Columbia Triathlon, I actually considered a DNS for the first time in my life. My post Barkley “indulgence period” had been a bit longer than expected and I hadn’t kept myself in the best shape. There were also delays getting some rather important parts for my new bike, like, you know, wheels. Finally, some big travel had come up for work that would sandwich the race. I had to travel to Europe the week of the race, which was a bit of a disaster where I averaged less than 4 hours of sleep per night including spending a night homeless on the rainy streets of London, and then go straight from the race to the airport to fly to Hong Kong.
The race was planned as a tune-up to jumpstart my triathlon season, though. I figured that no matter the outcome, I would at least accomplish that. I also still had the incredible support of my family, and teammates even more amazing than I originally thought, so I moved forward with my plans.
In the end, things didn’t really work out the way that I planned. After finishing 2nd overall, I noticed from my GPS data that I missed a turn on the run course. I reported myself to the race director and got DQ’d. I can’t thank the RD enough for everything he did to try to get the best outcome after my course error, but in the end rules are rules. I’m still glad I did the race, and if nothing else it was great preparation for the rest of the season. It’s also an outstanding event with a course that I really love (I can’t get enough hills). Read more →
A Chinese version of this race report translated by Larson Zhang can be viewed here.
I arrived at Frozen Head two days before the race with a great deal of optimism. The weather looked perfect, I had trained well, and I knew that a solid group of veterans would be there including Jared Campbell. I also felt great about course navigation. I could visualize in my head the route to almost every book. The descent to book 2 was a little hazy for me, but I would assuredly still be with a group during that portion on the first loop. Otherwise I felt I could lead or go it alone if necessary, something I was never quite confident enough to do the previous year. I wanted 5 loops, and I felt good about my chances.
After Jamil and I completed a Fun Run, I crashed pretty hard. The people feverishly trying to help me in this video when I’m at my lowest of lows are my wife and dad, and then two people I had never even met before the race but have since become close friends: Jodi and Karine.
In the weeks leading up to the Barkley I eagerly anticipated the start of the race, but at the same time I had not been so nervous about something in years. The Barkley was more than just a race to me; it was personal. I grew up across the street from the course at the bottom of Chimney Top. My family had been on that land next to their namesake Kelly Mountain for 200 years. Those mountains are in my blood, and they were about to get a chance to reclaim some of it. Just as my background gave me enormous motivation, though, it also gave me trepidation. I could handle my own likely failure, but I was the home team and I wanted to represent the community well.
This is a story from 2013 about how to make a bunch of bad decisions to put yourself in a pretty bad situation in the backcountry, but then I like to think it’s also a story about how to get back out of that bad situation. I was at that dangerous point where I knew enough to think that I knew what I was doing, but was not experienced enough to know how much I still had to learn. Bottom line: the wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place (as I hope it always will be) and Mother Nature is unsympathetic and dangerous. Don’t be an idiot, and before you venture out into that wilderness make sure you have the proper experience, preparation, and planning for all scenarios you could face. Then, have fun and enjoy the awe-inspiring landscapes and the incredible wildlife that we get to share them with.