My brother was standing there in the middle of the woods waiting for me. I saw him as I came around one of the last curves on the Bear Lake trail, before the trail empties out into the campground. For miles and miles I had been thinking about him, and the rest of the people in my life who are so crucial to where I am today. And on that particular “today” in my life I was leading a race, and about to run into the finish line with my brother. What a ride life can be.
People say all the time that “hard work pays off,” but I think what’s more accurate is that hard living pays off. Don’t get it twisted, I’m not saying that I’ve had a hard life by any stretch of the imagination. What I am saying is that life throws hard shit to deal with at all of us. Exactly what shit, and how hard it is to deal with is relative to each individual. I have found over the past few years that honoring my physical body through punishment and voluntary suffer sessions makes it stronger, and that makes me feel better about me and my ability to deal with non-physical pain, turmoil, and confusion life can throw at us in these modern times.
Back before we had food, and “food,” on tap 24/7, our biggest worry was starvation, living to see another day. So our daily struggles, by default, put our asses to work searching for things to eat, and potentially running from other things that want to eat us. You see, back before planes, trains, and automobiles (yes, great movie, but stay focused here. lol), the daily struggle to cover the distances needed to sustain our existence was done with bipedal locomotion. Before the days of agriculture and animal domestication, we had to find the plants and animals we wanted to eat in their natural environment, which meant traveling. There was little time for what we call stress today; internal worry about things that do not pertain to the physical survival of the organism. And, I think that is where our brains, and ability to keep us from the old daily stresses of evolved human life, have failed us. Our natural existence had a balance between the energy we consumed in the form of food, and the energy used on a daily basis to acquire it. This is how the human organism has evolved, and we’ve been bas
tardizing that balance for about 10,000 years or so. The previous few million years created the physical success and prowess of the human organism, and with “progress” we have systematically begun to dismantle it.
My point is that we must now seek out and find the work, pain, and suffering that used to be brought to our lives by default. We must seek, voluntarily, what used to be an involuntary given; and although work, pain, and suffering are perceived as negative in today’s human existence, I submit that they are crucial to the order of nature, an order that has our bodies and minds working together. Hopefully without being too wordy, that’s my explanation of why I do what I do with intensity with which I do it; eat plants, run miles.
As many of you may already know, I started the journey that has me where I am today a few years ago with a desire to not be the fattest guy in a room full of college students. Spurred emotionally by the Super Bowl victory of my favorite NFL franchise (WHODAT!), the words of its head coach in his book following that magical season, my wonderful you-can-do-anything wife, and a lifelong friend who wanted a workout partner, I began my journey to simply lose weight. (another modern human problem of our making, not nature’s) After finding myself at a place I’d actually been before, down 80ish pounds, I knew that to keep this from being just another “that time I lost all that weight” I needed to do something different. And, in walked Running.
At first, Running was just an acquaintance; “I’ll just use running to get more weight off.” I’d give Running a little nipple blood, and Running would give me a smaller number on the scale. But one day that all changed because I entered a race. After that, Running seemed a lot cooler to me. I wanted to have a deeper relationship with Running, so I read about Running and eventually began to realize that, as a human, I was born to be besties with Running. I embraced this new concept. Running was no longer there for me to use, but there to be my partner in a better human life; a life that included a human diet, and a human body with natural human proportions and physical capacity. It dawned on me that if I bought in and really cozied up to Running and my new pal Plants, then by default, I’d look the way I’d always dreamed of looking, and have the feelings and emotions that came with that type of nature’s protocol-abiding life. Long story short (I know, already too late for that), Running and Plants saved my life. I’m not being dramatic, I’m being serious; they saved my life from being one of shear existence-till-death. I’ve seen those consumption-derived-happiness lives play out over and over in my family and people I’ve been connected with throughout my life, I don’t want that.
Fast forward a few years of living this way, my friend Jean, who is also pretty tight with Running and Plants and is the person who talked me into signing up for my first ultra in Destin this past February, twisted my arm ever so slightly to sign up for the Bear Bait 50 miler, yet another ultra-marathon (now my fourth). He had just inspired the living shit out of me in November with his performance at a 100 mile race in the mountains for which our buddy Wally (another person my homie Running has introduced me to) and I paced, and helped his wife and daughter crew for him. Not long after witnessing what I saw him do on the mountain that night, I decided that for the first time I wanted to really race, as opposed to just finishing an ultra. I wanted to pay Running with something besides nipple blood this time. My previous ultra events had been so mind-blowing, so overwhelming, that I was elated to just get to the finish line. My real race efforts were saved for the 26.2 mile distance I, while still a newbie, felt like I knew a little more about. But what if I trained for, and raced and raced an ultra like it was a marathon?
Can my formerly morbidly obese body really do that?
Is that being greedy?
Am I going too far?
Am I asking too much from a body that I have abused in myriad ways for a solid 89% of my life?
As I began training for this race, I decided to follow Jean’s lead. I had seen him reading Hal Koerner’s book A Field Guide to Ultra Running, and if I know Jean at all, I know he gobbles up the best literature on ultra training available, so I didn’t even question or waiver for a second on the decision to follow Hal’s 50 mile training plan. I went in! He had me running 60, 70, 80 mile weeks; back-to-back 20+ mile long runs on the weekends; he also had me running tempo pace runs midweek, with only one rest day out of seven. Honestly, it kept me tired and hungry. But after only a few weeks I began to feel really strong on the weekend long runs, and was able to speed up and run hard toward the end of almost every long run, really emptying the vessel.
By the time the taper began, I was feeling nervous, but ready. In the first week of the taper, I knew from past experience that not running my usual weekly mileage would bother me, I’d feel like I was losing ground (tapering can be a mind fuck. js), so on the Monday morning of the first week of my two-week taper I did a leg workout that my gym-rat wife put together for us a while back. It’s about 600 reps of leg exercises. And, I kept up my Tuesday/Thursday bootcamp routine that week. Needless to say, my legs were so sore that week that the last thing on my mind was running more. But as I healed up, it was hard to run those recovery-pace miles in the week leading up to the race; I was feeling good and started the week off running a little too fast. However, with some friendly scolding via text message from our LUR (Louisiana Ultra Runners) mother hen Rhea (an experienced ultra beast whose advice should grab your attention) I was able to course-correct and stay on task for the rest of the week, and heal up properly.
On Friday morning I woke up at 4am and double-checked my list of needed gear, got my truck loaded and headed over to my Bam Bam’s house to link up with my race crew: Mom, Bam Bam, my brother Dustin, and his lovely lady Mishca. We arrived early enough to get a lap of the race course in, and get my race packet before we retired for the evening. After getting Bam Bam settled down and in bed (sometimes he forgets he is not going home when on a trip, so some comforting explanations are required to get him settled enough to hit the sack), my brother grilled up some taters and other veggies for supper. After getting our grub on, we were in the bed as well. (Bam Bam ate fruit for supper, he is a bananaholic)
Before my 3:30 am alarm sounded off, I was awake. It’s race day! It’s time to, like an ol football coach used to say, GET AFTA DAT ASS. I’ve been waking up this early almost daily, even weekends, to get my training in before other daily obligations and duties. During my training for this race, life definitely tried to derail me, but failed. Dammit, I’m ready to get this show on the road. Dammit, I’m ready to run right NOW, at 3am! Let’s do dis! I put on some Juvenile and started getting my mind right. Chills. Butterflies. Tears.
With Bam Bam and the rest of my crew loaded up and ready to roll at 4:15am, we double-, and triple-checked the gear, nutrition, and hydration, and were rolling out by 4:30. After a foggy, slow ride to the campground where the race was to start, Mom dropped me off at Wally’s camper. There, I met up with Wally, his wife Nikki, Jean, Jerry—our “Godfather of ultras,” and Rhea. We all donned our headlamps, and headed for the start line.
Now, at the start line, after the requisite pre-race selfies, the “beeps” of our GPS watches fill the air, and just like that BOOM we’re off! Jean jumped out in front of Wally and I immediately with the intention of getting ahead of the pack in an effort to avoid congestion on the single track trail on which we’d be spending the day. I liked the pace. It was about 2 minutes per mile faster than what my goal pace was, but it did wonders for the butterflies in my stomach. That first lap was so cool! It was Jean, me, then Wally, in that order, with Wally and I making jokes about Jean mistaking this race for a 5k because of the pace in mile one. Also in that lap, a deer damn near ran into Wally. Oh, the memories that are born on the trail. Good stuff!
After the first lap, Wally blew thru the aid station and left me and Jean to our 50 miles while he went beast mode on his 50k. Jean and I stayed together for lap two and three, still a little quicker than I had planned, but hey, if Jean was running this pace, so was I. By then end of the third lap, I decided I wanted to change into my fresh shoes early. I called out to Jean that I was going to run ahead to change my shoes. As I sat there changing my shoes, Jean popped out of the trail, and effortlessly moved through the aid station looking strong. By the time I got my shoes tied, he was about 1000 meters out in front. I could see he was starting to do the smart thing: settle into a more sustainable 50-mile pace. And, while I wanted to do the same, I figured I’d catch back up to him first. But it wound up taking me the entire 4-mile loop. I didn’t get back up to him until we were back at the aid station. When we went to leave the aid station this time, he took the time to caution me. He said, “You pushed pretty hard in that last loop, bro. That was totally unnecessary. This is a long race, man. You had all day to make up that time.” His words were sincere, and well-received. I promised I would chill, starting on this lap, lap 5. Lap 5 I chilled, and started to settle into an all-day effort.
My Mom, per my request, had been recalculating how slowly, per lap, I could go after every lap I finished, to still finish in under 10 hours, which was my goal finish time. But I kept coming in under the planned 46 minutes per lap, and felt good, so I was feeling encouraged. I had kept going in lap 6 when Jean stopped for a second with his crew (the most adorable crew of the race btw), so now I was alone.
Alone on the trail with 7 laps to go, I just obsessed over staying steady. I wanted to just keep a solid average and not need to slow to a walk at the end if possible. Just like I did in the New York City Marathon, I thought about my Bam Bam. I kept thinking about that overused term I hear from people when we get on the subject of running, “I just can’t.” “No, you just won’t,” I’d think to myself about the hypothetical excuse-maker. My Bam Bam “can’t,” that term should be saved for the people who actually need it. To use it by choice is blaspheme. This would fuel me every time I would start to feel like I “couldn’t.” My Bam Bam is sitting there in a wheelchair waiting to see me pop out of those woods and make him smile one more time, because he’d give me a big smile every time I came thru. While Bam Bam was a huge source of inspiration for me, he was not the only relationship that drove me and my passion to drive, drive, drive that day. My wife, who often has to miss these races due to her professional obligations, but we are both with each other always, regardless of physical proximity, was on my mind. She is the best thing I’ve ever won, and I could hear her in my head saying, “Get your life together, and finish the fucking race baby! I know you got this!” In addition to Bam Bam, my brother, who often gets the shitty end of the stick being my business partner, was also there waiting for me to come through, ready to give me any aid I need, per usual, as well as a loud, confident, “You can be tired later, bruh! Let’s fuckin GO!” I could see the pride in my Mom’s eyes, it was mixed with concern, but I could see pride nonetheless.
On every loop everyone who matters to me played a role in motivating me: I knew Jean was back there somewhere, not too far, just buying time, doing his normal steady grind, and the last thing I wanted was a “you alright, bro?” as he passed me on his way to his usual confident, stoic finish; I knew that I was ahead of Rhea before the 50k finish, and the prospect of her coming around me with a “shouldn’t have come out so fast, my boy…,” as she went around me kept me driving to the 50k mark; I knew Wally had finished the 50k already and would be standing with my brother and Bam Bam as I’d pop out of the woods after that 8th loop, and I wanted him to be surprised and proud of me…
I wound up finishing that 8th loop, the 50k finish (which was actually 32.5 miles), in 5:25ish. my previous 50k pr was 5:55. And that was actually 31 miles. I came in right behind the first 50k female. Now I’ve got 5 more laps, 20 miles. I’ve done 20 miles a million times, it seems. So at that point, I was telling myself “only 20 left.” I began to relax a little. I was feeling good, and began to slow a little. I knew I was ahead of my goal, so I took a breath and slowed the pace.
Then, out of nowhere, I heard footsteps. Uh oh! The 50k is over, this cant be a 50k’r. Can it? I looked back and saw a petite female blasting up the hill behind me. Then I noticed a yellow bib, that means she’s a 50 miler. Damn! I’ve done so well, I’ve come so far, I’ve never run stronger or longer in my life, regardless of gender, I don’t want to get passed now! So, I picked up the pace and kept looking back. I could see that I was getting some separation so I just kept pushing, and checking back to see if I was still pulling away. I was. Then, I saw a couple dudes standing there in the middle of the trail. As I approached, I could see one of them was wearing a yellow bib. I was about to pass a 50 miler! Cool! I mean, hell, I was happy to just still be running, much less passing folks. I ran up to the guy and high-fived him pretty hard, I was excited and was genuinely offering encouragement. Well, as I went to run past them, the guy not racing said, pointing at the racer, “He’s first place, so y’all are 1 and 2!” At first I thought he meant that I was now in first place, but after I thought about it for a minute, I decided that he meant that I was second and he was a lap ahead, in first. If I was in first there should be some indication when I got to the aid station. When I arrived, it was just business as usual; my brother met me at the woods, asked what I needed, yelled it to the rest of the crew, and they got it ready for me as I approached. It was confirmed in my head at that point: I was in second place. By this time, the girl that had been behind was even with me, and as we passed through the start/finish I heard them tell her she had 4 laps left, I had 3 left, so she was a lap down. I was relieved because she was fresh as a daisy, and I didn’t know if I could run with her for the rest of the race. Phew!
But as we left the start/finish, I kept her in my sight anyway. I figured I could use her to pace me, and maybe I could run fast enough to catch up to the leader. So, for almost that entire loop, I ran uncomfortably close to her. I apologized to her and admitted that I was using her for pace, when she prompted me to pass her on one of the foot bridges. She laughed and said, “You can’t draft off me!!” But by the last mile in that loop, I couldn’t hang with her anymore. Shit, we were running an 8:30 pace at times in that loop. Pretty sure she wanted me to stop breathing on the back of her head (insert embarrassed face emoji). When I popped out of the woods this time, again, no mention of the leader, so I was kinda settling into the idea of second place. I checked with my crew to make sure the girl was a lap down, and they confirmed that she was. But my brother and mom was really pushing me out of the aid station for some reason. Mom said, “You’re doing really really good, Josh! So good! Keep pushing!” So, I assumed I was climbing on the leader.
On that second to last loop, I went as hard as I could muster. I was still trying to keep the girl I’d been harassing close, but damn, she was KILLING me. When I got back after that loop, my brother walked up with me to the rest of the crew, and broke the news “You are in the lead by 5 minutes!” I immediately started to cry, hard. My brother said, “ It ain’t time for that yet, Josh! Finish this fucking thing!”
I started out on that last loop not quite sure how to feel. I was just kinda in a daze, man. “I’m the leader? It’s the last lap, and I’m in the lead with a 5 minute cushion! Why the fuck am I running right now? Time for a little walk break, Joshua.”
Then I walked past my LUR friends’ campsites, and I heard Wally shout “GO, BIG J!!!! HOODEE HOOOOO!!!!!” I returned a “HOODEE HOOOOO!!!!” of my own.
Next, I heard Rhea, “you better run, my boy! Just remember the person that wins is the person that’s willing to suffer the most!”
I thought, “Does she realize I’m winning?” Then I thought, “Maybe she knows the guy chasing me can catch me. SHIT, I better get moving!” I took a couple swigs of Tailwind, and started running. I spent the rest of that loop running, walking with purpose, and checking over my shoulder. I knew I had some left in the tank, not much, but some. So I figured I’d get as much recovery as I could incase it was a sprint to the finish, but I never saw anyone behind for the whole last loop. I got to the end and my brother was waiting there to run me in to the finish. Man, that was one of the best feelings of my life! I’ll tell ya what, feeling proud of yourself is one of the most powerful things you could ever do for You.
It turns out, though, I wasn’t the only one with good reason to be proud. For starters, my buddy Wally’s cute-as-a-button little wife went totally HAM sammich, and came in 3rd female overall in the 50k, and pr’d the distance by over thirty damn minutes! Wally himself ran to a second place overall finish in the 50k, completing 8 loops in about 4 hours and 50 minutes! Fuckin’ ANIMAL! Rhea, our LUR rabble-rousing mother hen—even though she’s younger than all of us and the furtherest thing from a chicken one could imagine, came in a nonchalant 2nd overall female in the 50k. My buddy Jean came in third overall in the 50 miler.
Once at the finish, basking in the accomplishment of not just myself but my whole group of friends, it met the guy I had passed in mile 40. He was quite a guy! Rob Smith is his name, and it turns out he was also a plant-based guy, and a fan of Rich Roll. Further, as Jean, Rob, and myself stood there, for the paparazzi-esque camera action focused on us, the top three 50-mile finishers, it dawn on me that we’re all plant-based guys… PLANTPOWER, baby!
What a day! The day I married my wife was the happiest day of my life, and I’ve had some fairly life-altering experiences along this journey with Plants and Running that rank right up there tied for second place to that day. But this one bumps them all to third. The trail was breath-taking. Even after 13 loops, I was still enjoying the views, the path, the trees, the gentle uphills, the puddles of cool clear water we ran through, the great foot bridges! It was magnificently manicured and the most forgiving and gentle running surface I can imagine. I think I may be spoiled for life!
Bear Bait Ultras was an amazing host. Bill and Dan, as well as all the volunteers, were attentive, accommodating, and genuine. They were so nice, in fact, that I decided to forgo putting on a specific shirt I’d had made denouncing the popularity of bacon, as I’d been offered it several times during the race and didn’t want to come off like a vegan asshole—there’s enough of those, lol. Plus, I didn’t think I’d be the winner of the damn race when I planned to don said t-shirt.
Anyway, thanks, Bill, Dan, and all the volunteers; thanks, Bear Lake Campground, and all the high-fiving hikers on trail; thanks to my wife, Mom, Dustin, Bam Bam, Mishca, and all of my LUR family. What a day of love, peace, plants, and running!