Death on the Trail
Last week’s tragic death of ultrarunner Michael Popov in Death Valley really hit me hard. I didn’t know Michael personally, but I knew many who knew him and I was familiar with his exploits on the John Muir Trail, the Barkley, and many other adventures around the country and the world. His passing, as well as the tragic death of Micah True in New Mexico last spring, have given me pause and impelled me to think not only of running and living, which I often do, but also running and dying, which I almost never do.
It seems as though, recently, not a year has gone by when we haven’t heard about a marathon runner dying from cardiac arrest, seizures, or other running related ailments. And, of course, there are the occasional adventure-related wilderness deaths that have befallen climbers, skiers, base jumpers, and other thrill seekers attempting to go bigger, farther, higher, and deeper. The impact of these two deaths, on the trail, however, are striking to me in their inexplicability.
I have no knowledge of the actual circumstances surrounding the deaths of Micah True and Michael Popov. However, I do know that both of these men had logged thousands of miles on trails in mountains, deserts, and other remote locations. They were both skilled, talented, and committed athletes and yet, they died on the trail.
Certainly, as is often the case during such occasions, we can talk about how these two experienced runners died doing what they loved and we can reflect on all they gave to the sport and how much they will be missed but, in the end, they died before their time. And, they died running.
What can we learn from that?
Each morning when I lace up my shoes I do so with excitement. Typically, my morning run is the highlight of my day and it is often the time in my life when I feel most alive. Running feeds my soul and gives my life meaning. And, most of the time, I don’t think that what I am doing is risky. But, it actually is. Stretching the body beyond its limits carries with it a certain amount of risk. Expanding that effort to the wilderness, away from mainstream life and the safety net it provides, increases that risk further. Extend the effort beyond the limits of endurance, speed and stamina and the endocrine system is compromised. Then, engage in running 100 miles in a competitive environment through remote mountains at high altitudes in extreme conditions and the risk becomes exponentially greater. In the end, what we need to find is balance.
Risk management has long been a focus of the outdoor enthusiast. Questions about judgment, honor, discipline, experience, patience, acceptance, and clarity often occupy the psyche of the committed outdoor athlete and can be used, rightly or wrongly, to identify success and failure. The way in which we answer the questions we face in times of great risk and how we deal with the reality of our given circumstances in times of struggle often define who we are and give us a sense of our own mortality – our own place in the order of creation.
The tragic deaths of Micah True and Michael Popov have hit the trail/ultrarunning community hard. And, they should. But, they should also stand as reminders to all of us of our own mortality. Every time we head out into the mountains, or the forest, or the desert we are there to do what we love. We are there to engage in something that makes us feel whole, makes us feel human, perhaps, even, running brings out that sense of the animal in all of us.
But, running “out there” is also a gift and a privilege that we should never take for granted. I have to think that Micah and Michael would want it that way.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Good Life Brewing in Bend, Oregon. Their Descender IPA truly lives up to its name. Next time you’re in Central Oregon, be sure to head out to Century Drive and give it a try. It goes great with the bratwurst!
Call for Comments (from Bryon)
- How do you place the deaths of these athletes (and others) dieing doing what they love?
- How do you balance doing what you love with increased risk of injury or worse?