This Is Your Reality, Or Is It?

I was 80 miles deep in the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile in 2011. The temperatures had been close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the middle of the day with little shade. I had muscle cramps, was puking, and had been on the verge of heat exhaustion for most of the day. I was so mentally foggy that I honestly have no memory from parts of the race. Let’s just say this is one of those times where I was happy to not have any family there to see me in this state. I was complaining about how tired I was and everything I had gone through when my pacer Dema, a 6’3’’ dread-locked friend originally from Ghana boomed out with his deep voice, “Travis, this is your new reality. You must accept it and know that it is not going to change.” He was right: I never regained fresh legs or felt great again but there was something that clicked about his statement. The chance of things getting worse were unlikely. This was my new baseline. This was the hand I was dealt and I had to play it until this race was over or quit. I chose the former.

Like many, I have a love affair with the idea of living out of the back of my jeep in some little mountain town. I would get up in the morning, throw on a puffy coat and a stocking cap, open the tailgate and brew up some coffee or hot tea with my camp stove. It would steam in the cold air while I’d take that first sip and appreciate the terrain. I’d have a career of doing odd jobs, working in a cafe or some little store on the main drag in town selling touristy t-shirts like the one I bought in Silverton, Colorado last year. The rest of my time would be spent cruising around on the trail, exploring the area, and scrambling up the side of things while training for races all over the place. Free to do as I please, that’s the ticket!

This love affair is always cut short. I’m married, have a six-year-old daughter, and a stable job. In the world of outdoor adventure, this is not an overly exciting statement to start with, but it is what I have and it means something to me. I want to be able to provide a good life for my wife and for us to retire someday. I want my daughter to have opportunities to try out new things, go to good schools, and pursue her dreams as she gets older. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the kind of parent that just gives their kid whatever she wants. I’m the son of some hard-working parents myself. My dad is in his 33rd year of working in a coal mine, a job he still says is temporary until he finds something better. My mom manages a sleep lab at a hospital. She went to college to start this career when I was about 10.

In fact, I’d say it’s watching these two work their butts off that has always kept me closer to the nine to five and away from the ‘live on the edge’ lifestyle. I’m also not an elite athlete, meaning that making a living off my legs is not much of an option. I train hard and can hold my own at a local level. I tend to do well relatively at mountain races despite my flatlander status, but that is not really a stat one can hang his livelihood on. At some point one has to accept that passion can only take you so far and genetics start playing a role. If I was at capable of being part of the highest echelon of the sport, I’m fairly certain some other signs would have popped by now. That is not to say I am done trying or have peaked. It’s just that I have to accept that a 15-hour Western States is pretty much out of the question.

I was born in Illinois. Girard, Illinois to be exact. I met my now wife, Micaela, in junior high at Girard. I went to college at Eastern Illinois University in, you guessed it, the eastern part of the state. My first job was only 30 miles north of where I grew up in Springfield. Even my current job in Saint Louis is only about an hour and a half from my hometown. Most of my family and my wife’s family are all from and continue to live in this area as well.

“That guy is from Illinois?!” was heard as I crossed the finish line at the Big Horn 50 Mile in Wyoming last year in a respectable time for a guy who lives at 553 feet above sea level. It was a compliment in a weird way but I know my current locale is holding me back. You probably want to ask, “Back from what? You just said you were not elite?” I’m not, but I am still fanatical about an outdoor lifestyle, about having mountainous terrain available to me to be the best I can, about training and racing on amazing singletrack, about inspiring views, and being a part of the ‘scene’ that drives me. Mentally and physically, I want more from my surroundings. I have a great community where I am now. I have amazing friendships and a small group of us hit the local hard trails almost every weekend. These trails are solid and are right up there (in difficulty, not altitude) with pretty much anything I have run in ultras to date, but there are only a couple of these trails in the Saint Louis area. I feel like I want a different scene, but I was born, raised, and have worked near here my whole life. I should stay here… this is my reality, right, just accept it and keep on going?

I can’t cut ties with the outside world and live out of a camper near a lake on top of a mountain because I can’t just stop working and providing for my family. I can’t use my running talents to pay the bills. What can this regular guy do to feed the fire within? I can relocate. I’m lucky to work for a large company with offices in most major metro areas. I started networking a bit with some peers and managers in our west region and sure enough, after about two years of looking and waiting for the right opportunity, one came. My wife, daughter, and I are going to go out on a limb, break from the routines, leave our support system, and try a new adventure. We are leaving the place we have called home our entire lives to marry up my professional world with my running world. We are moving to Portland, Oregon. It is not the mecca of trail running but it is a major upgrade for me and a place I can raise a family. It gives my wife a great location to work, shop at the farmers’ markets, and explore the local arts community. My daughter gets the opportunity to go to great schools, be involved in a variety of activities, and see a little more unique side of this country of ours. I get to continue down my career path while still being a part of the ultrarunning scene and being somewhere with great access to the things that inspire me the most.

There will be an adjustment. I’m leaving behind my best friends and training partners. I will have to determine the right way, if any, to continue to be a co-race director for the Mark Twain Endurance Runs after this year. It will not be as easy as having a security blanket of all of our friends and family close by, but life is short and every now and then you have to make a new baseline for yourself. This is my new reality.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you made a major change to your life to follow at least in part your passion?
  • Do you feel the pull of your family/friends as well as the call of the wild? How do you rectify this sometimes dichotomy?
Travis Liles

resides in Portland, Oregon where he is a husband, father, and a technical specialist for a software company. In his spare time, he is exploring his new home in the Pacific Northwest, getting more vertical but still not living in the thin air, while producing “Trail Trials with Travis Liles” video gear reviews for iRunFar.

There are 21 comments

  1. @trlrnrgrl

    Best of luck Travis. You will be missed (especially by one of your main running partners and co-RD) but we'll all miss having your quick wit and no-nonsense attitude here keeping it real. We'll miss having your ladies at Mark Twain this year. I hope you all love Portland. Enjoy the new scenery!

  2. @trlrnrgrl

    Ah… that is a great line from Dema :-) Unfortunately I was unable to cope with my new reality of blown quads as effectively as you accepted feeling shitty at KM, but it's a great way to steel yourself for trying, and I appreciated it very much when you helped bolster me for another loop at the MT100. Rock on. Your new reality is looking pretty sweet :-)

  3. GotToRun99

    Thanks for sharing your story Travis. As the majority of runners don't fall into the elite category it's nice to read about a more average Joe dealing with the balancing of ones passion for running with day to day responsibilities as many of us do. I wish you all the best and welcome to Oregon!

  4. olgav100

    Portland is the best place on this Earth. Unfortunately, I had to move OUT of it because, indeed, life is like that, and other things happen to step in on a way to be the "best trail runner I can be". I miss it dearly, not a day goes by without thinking about it. As someone who never had "home" and had moved across the continents and across this country numerous times, Portland was as close as I could call it, but in general, moving around doesn't scare me. Enjoy!

  5. ultraspouse

    Wow! Wishing you and your family the best. Just forwarded this to my husband who longs to run more and sometimes wishes he didn't have to be part of the "game" of normal, middle-class life.

  6. erin

    "….This love affair is always cut short. I’m married, have a six-year-old daughter, and a stable job. In the world of outdoor adventure, this is not an overly exciting statement to start with, but it is what I have and it means something to me. I want to be able to provide a good life for my wife and for us to retire someday. I want my daughter to have opportunities to try out new things, go to good schools, and pursue her dreams as she gets older."
    I sooooooo hear you on this — right there with you in fact. Best of luck on your new reality – Portland is great!

  7. tme1212

    Wow! That's good stuff, Travis. I can totally relate. Small world too. I grew up about 30 miles east of you in Nokomis. Best of luck with your move!

  8. ClownRunner

    Great post, and good luck co-directing the Mark Twain race. I just watched the Ken Burns movie on Mark Twain the other night and it was sobering to find out he lost a son at an early age and a daughter in her 20's from meningitis. The point is, appreciate the family–because the mountains will always stand rugged and resolute, but the family is a bit more ephemeral…

  9. @PatrickKrott

    Awesome article. You definitely took what a lot of us think about and put it in writing. That's an excellent compromise.. well, not really a compromise at all. Maintaining your responsibilities but surrounding yourself with awesome areas to run, and keeping you and your family happy… that's living life to the fullest. Nice job.

    1. kjz

      Contact the SLUGs. (St. Louis ultra group)… Some great Midwest trails in the area and within an hour or two… Johnson shut- ins are very cool, Chubb trail. Etc.

  10. @macandtheboys

    Thanks for the piece, Travis. I am currently talking myself through the same scenario. My husband child's coming in a few days and I feel the next step is near for my wife and I. We live in Barcelona. Moved here from Southern California. Both are great in terms of available running terrain and decent in terms of weather, but we'll probably move back to the states within a year or so. I'm a teacher and I'm looking to get out of the business. It's draining. Lately, my mantra has been “keep the things that inspire you close and you'll succeed". I don't see myself getting sponsored to run anytime soon, but I realize that living in the right place, getting out on the trails and up into the mountains, and being with my family are things I won't compromise.

  11. @runwillt

    I still remember reading about your Mt. Hood 50 miler way back in the day and how excited you were to be running in mountains and now you can call that place home. Home is where the heart is and it sounds like your heart resides in the mountains. I think this transition will come easier than expected. Welcome home.

  12. ctkohm

    Thanks for the reality check, Travis. Your heartfelt thoughts remind us to hold onto our dreams and passions but also to keep perspective on what's important, even possible. Having in-the-moment gratitude is a huge part of contentment in life, and its easy to get caught up in "the grass is greener on the other side" type of thinking. The West is a blessed placed to live for us Mountain lovers – I live at the base of the Olympic Range just across the Puget Sound from Seattle – and yet I some times catch myself wishing for an upgrade!! Your post reminded me to pinch myself for getting to live in this awesome place. Hopefully you can pinch yourself for the gift of a loving family, and now also because Mt. Hood will be your playground!! Welcome.

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