“You ma boy, Josh! Look what we’re doing man. Another damn ultra! We’re hurting, we’re tired, we’re cramping, but we’re shuffling through the pain and getting it done. I love you, brother!”
These are the words I was saying aloud to myself in mile 29 or so of the Gamelands Ultra on Saturday morning in Wagram, NC. It was getting warm, I had tested my body with an ill-advised pace for the first 10-15 miles, and I had been testing what my limits on nutrition and hydration are, but dammit!, here I was with one of my closest friends in the past couple years, me, wrapping up another proud moment. To say it was pleasing would be an understatement. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being arrogant here, I’m just trying to sufficiently share a shift in mindset that I think has been my biggest asset recently: self-podnaship. (ask a coonass. sorry, normal people. lol-or click the hyperlink)
You know, I grew up hunting and fishing. Hell, I still have a gun cabinet full of guns. I have a euro-mounted deer skull in my office, alongside a 5lbs bass I caught, and the hide of an elk that my Bam Bam killed in Colorado. Now that I no longer eat animals, and no longer see the killing of these beings as a “necessary” evil accepted in order to achieve the “proper” amount of protein, I don’t tear down these things and burn them. You know why? Because they have a deep connection to very fond memories of my life, shared with some of the most important people in my life. I refuse to hide from the fact that I was a hunter. Most of my very best friends still participate in the sport regularly. Yes, I said sport. Although we have leveraged the internal combustion engine, gun powder, and other technologies to such a degree that it may no longer be the intensely physical activity it once was (and, actually, quite an ill-advised energy gamble in times of scarcity-but I digress), it does still take some level of skill and experience. That being said, for the most part these days I must admit that “sport” is a loosely used term here. There is a big difference between subsistence hunting, and the kill-a-limit-every-day hunting we do today. I’m not trying to be an ass, or all judgey, I’m just trying to offer a point of view that has come into view for me over the past couple years as I try to reconcile the things I know today with things that have brought me a sense of pleasure, and honestly, meaning in my past life. I know what guns and hunting leases mean to people. I know very well. I also know I walked away from mine a few years ago quite reluctantly. I did so not to be a plant-based ultra-marathoner, but because it just became untenable in my life given other areas that were completely out of balance. I don’t want to give people the impression that I had a health epiphany, and just quit hunting overnight. It was way more complicated and confusing of a time for me than that. But to say that since that time some things have become clearer, and some ideas around it have crystalized in my mind is completely accurate.
I spent a lot of time chasing pleasure on our hunting lease. This pleasure had a price, a price I saw paid in health by the elders in our group. It wasn’t the hunting, per se, but a lifestyle of pleasure purchasing/chasing and hack-leveraging that made it possible for us as an organism to achieve the euphoric feeling of sustaining life (escaping death) without ever really having the life’s sustainability threatened, except for by the way we were pretending to sustain it. Damn, that was a mouthful! lol! What I mean here is, we spend tons of resources making a sport of pretending we need to, or that we can, survive off what nature has to offer. The reason I say we pretend we need to is because we don’t need to hunt to survive, but that is one of the chest-pounding pride driven reasons we do it; “putting meat in the freezer for my family. (so they/we can survive/eat good)” And the reason I say we pretend we can is because it’s our guns and machinery that make it possible to “harvest” limits of game animals in a quantity that would be un-attainable in nature, therefore unattainable without these technologies we leverage, therefore surviving off nature with the quantities of “foods” (animal muscle and organs) we think we need is not possible—therefore it is not really living off nature. Make sense at all? I think familial protection, and being an asset to your clan’s survival is very important, but I just don’t think that the traditional paradigm of filling a freezer with animals to do so is on par with how nature would have us surviving in a vacuum of modern convenience to leverage. Our 2nd amendment-, NRA-centric idea of protecting our families as a core value seems to me to be missing the biggest threats to our and our family’s wellbeing; our lifestyles, and the “traditions” and paradigms that keep us overweight and under-healthy. I know deep down we are survivors, and that our propensity to going out into the woods and harvesting survival from nature is a manifestation of that. However, I submit that maybe I have reduced my desire to participate in those pseudo-survival rituals, while actually helping my clan’s survival through new, yet ancient means; plants and running.
If one thinks about it, it’s not that far of a stretch from what is being done today on hunting clubs and rural backyards around the country. The only difference is I have pragmatically taken the difficult, against-the-grain tact of no longer eating animals. And instead of going into the woods to do the perceived survival prerequisite of harvesting nature to bring home, I go into the woods to do the survival prerequisite of covering ground and coming home with a sweaty brow, tired legs, and a more in depth connection with the given plot of territory and its plants I happened to be “surviving” in and around that day.
As you can see, I put a lot of thought into this line of reasoning, lol. There’s nothing more I would like to see than a marriage of my love of the woods and nature to be able to be understood, shared, and appreciated by the three circles of people with whom I have created the most indelible memories of my life; sportsmen, runners, and plant eaters. (the recipe for a human?) But my pleasure source has shifted from a pleasure sourced from the butcher shop and liquor store, to one sourced from the produce department and the running store.
That brings me to NC.
As I was planning a trip to NC to spend a week with a friend brainstorming on a very exciting project, I just had to check ultrasignup.com to see if there was a race that may work with my travel plans. There was! I found this race called Gamelands Ultra. The finisher medal had an etched image of a euro-mount deer skull with arrows passing through it in a skull-&-crossbones fashion. To most plant-based/vegan types, I’m sure a total turnoff, but to me a bit of nostalgia honestly. I got giddy when I found and signed up for this race. It was perfect! I’d spend the week talking plants and running, attend a Plant-Based Prevention of Disease conference, then punctuate the week with a 50k through some beautiful gameland trails; in a way bringing my life from hunter to plant based ultra runner full circle. I loved it!
I arrived Tuesday afternoon in NC with a full week of work to do with my friend. As we attacked what we wanted to get done, and got our ducks in a row on what still needed to be done, I had this race in the back of my mind the whole time.
All week I had been watching the weather, and every day the weather channel app on my phone was predicting a 100% chance of rain for Saturday morning. I was mentally preparing myself for a slopfest of a 50k. But by Thursday afternoon the weather was threatening to stall our plans for a Saturday morning ultra through the piney woods due to the possibility of lightening. We would know for sure by 7am Friday morning if the race was still a go or not.
At 6:30 am Friday morning I went for the second 7-mile run of the week with my friend. With my mind kinda half believing the race was going to be canceled, I put on a 20 pound weighted vest and figured I would go ahead and get in a good workout. If, when we got back at 7:30 or so, the race had in fact been canceled, I’d lose the vest and go for another loop, maybe two. But when we got back to my truck, I checked the Roam Ultra Facebook page, and found that the race was still on! Immediate butterflies…
After getting showered and fed, I drove to NC State, about 45 minutes away, to meet my friend at the Plant-Based Prevention of Disease conference. There were a few speakers I wanted to see, but my main motivation for going was that Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn himself was the last speaker of the day at 8:15pm. Being a kinda known guy in the plant-based circle, my friend was able to arrange a dinner with a few plant-based doctors, we picked up a fan of his podcast who we met on our way out and invited to join us. As we walked through the lobby of the McKimmon Center, we ran into Dr. Robert Ostfeld, a plant-based cardiologist, and had a brief conversation in which he said that he knew who I was and that he “stalks my Facebook page” to look at the runs I post…mind blown! He stalks my page? Surreal.
After a bowl of grits with an oyster mushroom gravy and grilled veggies, atop a serving of cooked collards, with a side of smashed potatoes, at a cool little vegan restaurant, our little posse headed back to campus to wrap up the day. As we entered the building, the first thing I noticed was the white hair of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn! Total fanboy moment! My friend knew him personally, and
said rather nonchalantly “let’s go say hi.” My mouth went dry, I could feel tears welling up, and all of the sudden I felt the cool rush of nerves. This man just doesn’t know what his book has done for not only me in the way of self-education, but for my Bam Bam and his health. His book gave me the confidence to really dismiss the “make sure he gets his protein/calcium,” talk I often got from Bam Bam’s physicians when I revealed to them how we were losing weight and changing our health so dramatically. It was doctors like Esselstyn, Ostfeld, Greger, and Davis who really provided me with the knowledge to take the “locust of control,” as Dr Esselstyn would put it, when it came to my and my family’s health, which is really about survival, no?
Anyway, as we approach Dr Esselstyn, he was fiddling around with his carry-on bag. He had it open and was digging through it rearranging some things. I couldn’t help but notice a pair of Hokas in his bag, and immediately in my mind thought he needed to try a pair of Altras, lol! “Maybe I’ll get him a pair,” I was thinking, as I was having a mini daydream. Then, all of the sudden, he’s standing and facing my friend and I.
“Howie!” he says to my friend, and gives him a big embrace. “How are you?”
Howie told him that he was fine, and that he wanted him to meet me. As I shook hands with Dr Esselstyn, Howie filled him in on my weight-loss. His face lit up, and he began to ask me questions about my experience. “Holy shit,” I thought, “I’m having a conversation with Dr Caldwell Esselstyn!” He was engaged and interested in my story, but when I told him about the changes Bam Bam made in his health as an 80-year-old, he really beamed.
I hung around to listen to his talk at 8:15. I didn’t get away until 9:45 or so, and had to drive the 50 minutes back to Chapel Hill, where I was staying.
I peeped at the time as I set my alarm. It was 11pm! Because the race was nearly an hour and a half drive, and the start time was 7:30am, I had to leave by 5:30 at the absolute latest. But, because I still had to pack, give myself time for a good dump (or two), and leave a 30 minute or so cushion to actually find this place once I got to Wagram, NC, where the race was being held, I set my alarm for 3:45am.
When the alarm sounded, I was ready! No snooze, just feet on the deck, and “let’s get this show on the road, baby!”
Arriving at the race site after a few Siri-induced wild goose adventures, I was immediately reminded of my old hunting lease. There were barns, horse paddocks, and sandy dirt roads; I heard twangy southern accents discussing the promised post-race BBQ and beer. This was going to be fun! I was a coonass in a not-so-strange land, but an alien just the same. Yet, even here I had someone come up to me and ask if I was Josh from the RRP?!? Wow, what a reach you have, Rich! So cool, right?
In the start corral however, I began to feel a tad bit alone. Everyone was laughing it up and taking pics, having obviously run races together before. I was an outsider, and I started to feel like in a way I had kinda crashed the party. I got quiet. I got serious.
“3, 2, 1! Go!”
With that, the race was officially underway. Immediately I was in a three runner lead pack, bringing up the rear. The guy in first place, Sean Zion, I heard in a pre-race conversation, had just run a marathon in 2:40. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be in sight for long. But then there was a girl with a swishing ponytail in second, who seemed really young, and I didn’t know if the pace we were running (mid sevens) was really in her bailiwick. I thought that maybe she was a 10-miler or something. Yeah, I didn’t pay enough attention to the race description and start times, so I didn’t realize at the time that the 10 milers were to start an hour and a half behind us. But, getting back to Miss Ponytail, she was running fast and strong, but this is a 50k, 31 miles is a long race. I figured I’d just keep her in my sights and use her to pull me at this pace. (which, btw, was not in MY bailiwick. lol!)
About 2.5 miles in, we realized we’d made a wrong turn, and that three of us were now behind the first half or so of the 50/100k pack. This bunched us back up together, and we climbed back through the field, eventually getting out ahead again. Then we began to talk, just the three of us. I already knew who Sean was from ultrasignup.com and from the pre-race port-o-let line chatter, but the rest of us shared our names, and a little about ourselves. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was easily the slowest guy in the lead pack. Katie (found out later she is a big deal on the ol interwebs! check out her blog) was the girl’s name. Turns out that she was a faster marathoner than me also (3:15), but this was her first ultra. So in my mind I’m thinking that my little bit of experience makes up for the 10 minutes I gave up to her in marathon PR. They were both very nice people, and very inclusive and accepting of this loud, foul-mouthed, Sasquatch of a coonass, as we flew through the woods at what was a completely unsustainable pace for me. But hey, I wanted to see limits today.
As we topped a little hill toward the end of loop one, and began the descent, I could already feel the tinge of a calf cramp in my right leg. “Fuck it! we ‘gon hurt today, bruh!” I thought to myself.
We came through start/finish, and I was in second place. But, I needed to refill my water and grab a GU before I headed back out. Lil Miss Katie just flew through, no stopping for her. Immediately, I’m trying to hurry so I can at least keep her in sight. Sean bolted off next. Then I finally found where I’d put my GU’s (I’m a special case of jumble-fuck. js), threw one in my handheld, and took off after Miss Ponytail again.
She was way out ahead, but I could see I was gaining on her. On this lap her husband had decided to run with her. In my head, I was like “maybe she’s hurting a bit, and her husband is helping her to keep moving. Poor thing, must have come out too fast…” Well, in about the 3rd mile of that second loop, her husband turned and ran back toward me. He complimented me on my performance thus far and headed back toward the start. Nice guy.
Back to trying to reign in that poor young lady who’d come out too fast. But wait! She’s going faster now! So I sped up too, but by now sub-eight-minute miles were seeming like a bad idea. I decided to chill out and let the race come back to me, eventually, maybe. I’m sure she will have to slow down at some point. I’ll just hold steady right here, I have experience on my side.
As I started to settle into the idea of being alone for the next 15 or so miles, all of the sudden someone catches up to me and flies by. Dammit! I must be falling off my pace hard. But upon checking my watch, I could see that I was well within a pace that would net me a sub 5-hour effort so I was cool. Oh well, I had just gone from secondish to fourth in the span of 30 minutes or so. I was digesting that when I saw my fast little pony-tailed friend heading back toward me on the trail.
“Hey, I think we’re going the wrong way!!” she said.
I was like, “ I sure as hell hope not because I feel like I know where I am. Plus, I just saw Sean blasting back up the trail on the other side of this tree line, so Im pretty sure he came from this direction.”
She returned with a “I dunno, I’m gonna go this way.”
For the next 1/2 mile or so I thought I may have been lost too, but the guy who’d just passed me hollered back to me that he saw a sign. Cool, I was not lost, I was on track. But then Immediately I thought about my new friend Katie. Where in the hell did she go? Why didn’t she just come with me/us? “dammit, girl, you were KILLING this thing!” I thought to myself.
As I approached the end of loop two, Katie’s husband was waiting, looking a little worried. He asked if I had seen his wife, and I told him that I’m pretty sure she got turned around, but she was looking strong as hell.
At the start/finish I realized the guy who’d blasted by me in mile 15 or so was in the 10 mile race, not the 50k. So, now I was officially in second. But damn, it felt dirty. I mean, I know the possessor of that ponytail I’d been chasing all morning should be in second place. Where the hell did she go? I even took a long break this time, and took my time making sure I got more hydration and nutrition in me, as I was really beginning to feel the effects of going so hard on what amounted to 110 calories, 40 oz of water, and 4 Salt Stick capsules thus far. I stretched out good, and began to shuffle back out onto the course. I spent mile 22 recovering in motion. I was cramping everywhere. Then, up ahead, I see that bouncing ponytail coming toward me. Damn, she’d gotten way behind. I felt so bad for her.
“I’m already in mile 24!” she said. She should have been in mile 19 or so at that point. I wished her my best and we parted ways again. I was going through a rough spot right then, so I wasn’t exactly chipper, lol.
In mile 23 I began to be able to run again. My Salt Sticks, calories, and water was starting to kick in. Phew! When I passed the aid station the RRP fan that had introduced himself earlier gave me a loud “GO JOSH!” I don’t know if he knows how good that felt. I was able to hold it together and stay in the 9’s for a couple miles, but as my water depleted my pace followed.
Around mile 26 I saw Katie again. She was not half way through the third loop yet. I just felt awful for her. As she sees me she stops and says, “let me ask you a question… what’s protocol in these races because I’m in mile 28 already, and I’m thinking about just turning around and going back. I’ll have 31. Would that DQ me?” I told her I was pretty sure it would. I mean, I felt like a jerk in a way, like maybe she thinks I just want to finish ahead of her so I’m telling her to keep going on to finish the loop instead of running back and helping her lobby the RD with her to let her have 2nd place. But that wasn’t it at all! I knew she had to do the loops to get the finish. Getting lost, or not getting lost is part of trail running.
As I broke the news to her, I could see tears welling in her eyes and it broke my heart. Really. I said “come here!” and reached for her with my arms to bring her in for a big bear (or Sasquatch) hug. I knew I was sweaty and gross and that she was dainty and cute, but I also knew the lonely feeling of discouragement that the late miles of an ultra can sledgehammer into your mind. In any case she didn’t recoil from my gross embrace, and I hugged her long enough to let her know that I truly give a shit, like really. She said something like she didn’t think she was mentally prepared to run 7 more miles. And if you know me at all, you know that shit just ain’t gonna fly with me. Fuck mentally prepared, you’re in the shit now. Finish this damn thing, girl! Take pride in the fact that you will have run more miles than anyone else here today. Just FINISH!
She told me thank you for the words of encouragement, but she wasn’t sure if she was going to listen to me or not just yet. lololol. Oh, don’t I get it!
We parted ways and I continued on with my shuffle of pain trying to get to that next aid station where I could get some more water, and hopefully get these cramps under control for a final push. By this point, my sub-five-hour goal was in jeopardy. I had to get moving and keep moving. I suffered through mile 27 and 28, then in 29 began to feel able to run again. This is where I told myself out loud how proud I was of us. No tears this time, just grit, determination, and pride. I felt really good about my effort, and I felt like I had learned a lot about my limits on nutrition, hydration, pace, etc. Not only that, but I think I was able to pay forward some of the encouragement I have received from more experienced ultra runners in my interactions with Katie. What a day of pleasure! Running through the woods, fuel by plants, built by plants, changing my paradigms with plants, finding new friends, and reaching new peaks due to plants, as well as sourcing pleasure, a whole new kind of pleasure: phyto-pleasure.
As I turned the corner and came in to the finish, my watch read 04:57:57 and 31.5 miles. It was a new 50k PR, and a second place overall finish. I’ll take it, even with an asterisk.
*(Katie ran 31 miles in 4:22 that day, not me. That was the second fastest 50k on the course.)
This whole week was like a hunt to me; there was travel, there was prep, there was work, there was camaraderie, and there was a sense of flexing my ability to survive. I may not squeeze the trigger from a box stand, get puke-drunk at a deer camp, or eat like I’m trying to explode my heart (in the name of family tradition); but I still want to, have to, need to mimic the main activity the universe put us here for; ultimately, to survive, or not. With plants and running I am not only surviving but thriving. I may have a truck, and be able to hack my way around the needed movements to sustain life, transportationally speaking (yes, I make up words dammit), but just like hunters go out into the woods despite the meat department hack that exists, I like to mimic survival in a more sustainable, healthy, and harmonious with nature and her creatures kind of way. And yes, it hurts more to do it like this, but it’s really neat how, to me, the parallels are so obvious. So, it is with great pride (and ironic symbolism not lost on me) that I brought my euro-mount finisher medal back to my much healthier and happier Bam Bam and put it around his neck.
Even though I didn’t kill a limit, I killed some limitations.