[Editor’s Note: As Dakota’s title states, you’ll find some profanity in this article, as well as what some may see as inappropriate word uses. Also, at the request of the subject, we reference him by his preferred nickname.]
Let me introduce ‘JLu:’ 48 years old, Brooklyn, New York born, 30-year resident of the greater Phoenix, Arizona area, and charismatic member of the Arizona trail running scene. If Aravaipa Running is the heart of trail running in the Southwest, then JLu gives it soul. In real life, he’s a self-proclaimed authority on designing data centers, which apparently is some kind of computer thing. In the life I know about–and the one he’s most attached to–he is trail running’s wild card.
Every summer for the past seven or more years, JLu camps in Silverton, Colorado for several weeks. He sets up a kind of compound in a nearby valley with a grill, tables, chairs, and multiple “buffer tents” around his personal tent, to deter other campers. Not coincidentally, the Hardrock 100 is held in Silverton every summer, and over the years JLu has become a fixture at the race. He runs on the course and knows everyone by their first names, but he also works for the race: he builds the start/finish line and does various other behind-the-scenes work. In between, he drinks a lot of beer and talks a lot of shit.
He stands out because he’s different from the rest of us dirtbags. And he’s different because of how he grew up. So here’s his story.
“So, you’re Italian?” I asked, while visiting his home recently.
“Yeah,” he said. “Well, half Italian, half German. I told you my story, right?”
“I don’t know. Tell me again.”
“My grandfather was a German soldier in World War II and served under [Erwin] Rommel. And Rommel tried killing Hitler, so my old man was not a Nazi–he was Wehrmacht–and there was a difference. So… he got stabbed a bunch of times, and shot, and after the war he-”
“He survived getting shot and stabbed a bunch of times?”
“Oh yeah! My grandfather was a badass, dude. He was some kind of cop before the war, in Essen. I got pictures of this shit, man. He’s standing there with all these dobermans and other cops and he’s just fucking jacked and it’s like… diesel. Yeah, he was a badass.”
I’m unsure why I didn’t pursue this subject further, since it’s either a bald-faced lie or the craziest backstory of all time. But JLu has a tendency to talk his way down the length of numerous tangents without pausing. I just let him continue.
“My grandfather came here with my mother. She eventually met my father, who was married and had a whole other family. He was fresh off the boat from Sicily, and brought his family over here. He was laundering money through a titty bar he owned, and he just didn’t have the business acumen. But my mother was a hustler. You know–red hair, fun, big cans, you know. My mother was a pisser, everyone loved her. I don’t want to say I didn’t love her, but I had problems with her. ‘Cuz after she got back from work, you know, being Miss Fun Mom, and I’m a kid, and she gets home and I’m like, ‘Where the fuck’s my dinner?’ So it was pretty dysfunctional.”
“Were your parents ever married?”
“Never? Your dad was having an affair with your mother?”
“It’s not an affair. In the Italian culture, you have a what’s called a Gooma.”
I’m still not sure what that means or if there’s any factual basis for it, but he explained it as a kind of culturally acceptable mistress. Lots of the things JLu says seem too incredible to be true, but his manner is genuine and authentic. I choose to believe him.
He went on: “My mom was kind of the brains behind the operation and my parents ran a couple of titty bars and dad was a shylock, that was kind of his day job.”
“Um… you lend money. And then if they don’t pay you, you… handle it,” he let the phrase trail off. “So there were times when he wasn’t there for two, three weeks. And he had his other family too. I think that’s why I ran wild. I didn’t have him there to keep an eye on me. And my mom’s alcoholism got worse as I got older.”
I swear this has something to do with running.
He grew up in Brooklyn but moved to Staten Island at 16 to live with his grandmother. “My mother got cancer when I was 16 and because the old man had another whole family, it was hard for him to deal with that and me at the same time. So I moved in with my grandmother. And my mom died when I was 18, and that year my dad just stepped out of the equation. And then he died a year later, and that’s when I came out here.”
“When you were 19?”
“Yeah. With 600 bucks, a poodle, and a suitcase.”
“Hang on. So you’re living in Staten Island with your grandma and your parents both die… Why’d you come here? Were you working?”
“It wasn’t just that they died. It was that I was getting into trouble. I should show you my record. I’ve got a lot of it expunged, just because some of it was when I was younger. I used to lie about my age to get into bars, so when I got arrested as a child they were charging me as an adult. Anyone could make a fake license. I had everything, dude. I had multiple assault and batteries, felony drug possession, felony drug sales, everything. I fucked all of that off when I left because it was just so much. I had gotten into so much trouble back there. Like, all the cops knew me by name.”
He never did explain how exactly one “fucks off” multiple felony charges. But I’ll let that one slide. In 1988, he moved to Phoenix, and his rationale for the move illustrates a crucial difference between his life and the lives of most young people in the outdoor industry now:
“A friend of mine had moved out here, with his dad. And he was like, ‘Dude, you’d love it out here. The women, they’re unbelievable.’ And he sent me the For Rent guide [a Phoenix-area real-estate guide] and I’m looking at it and it’s got palm trees and couples playin’ shuffleboard out by the pool, and I’m living on top of someone’s fucking garage, you know what I’m saying? And I’m like, ‘Wow, look at that. It’s pretty cool.’ So at that point I was recognizing that I needed to go to college because my mother was sick all that time, my father made it perfectly clear that, ‘Hey dude, I’m sorry, but I’ve got this family over here and you’re gonna’ need to handle your shit.’ And so I knew that no one was going to help me. I was working as a glazier [installing windows], and it was fucking cold. And I got this For Rent guide, and it was winter and like 20 below in New York. And I called up my buddy Matt who was living here [in Phoenix] and he was like, ‘Yeah dude, it’s like 75 degrees.’”
So he packed up and went to Phoenix. In this way, he was luckier than most people from his background. JLu grew up in a lifestyle of poverty and crime, which is brutal in a way that well-off kids like me will never really understand. People almost never escape from those circumstances because the system is savagely self-perpetuating. When JLu moved to Phoenix, he made himself a tiny exception to the powerful statistics of poverty.
It makes sense that he wanted the good life, a life in a big house with fast cars and a big TV, everything. And he applied himself to that goal. He earned his high-school diploma at 21, by taking the classes he’d missed in high school at Scottsdale Community College. Then he transferred to Arizona State University and earned degrees in political science and physical geography. “When I graduated, I recognized I couldn’t get a job with those degrees, so I went back and got an associates degree in computer-information systems, and that’s how I got into this business. My niche is in integrating technology into construction of new buildings.”
Throughout the ’90s and the first decade of this millenium, he worked in computer technology at corporate jobs that paid well. He got the house and the toys he’d wanted, and he got some nice bikes too. He spent most of his free time at the gym, and four nights a week at the bars. Pretty early on, though, a friend turned him onto triathlons, and he enjoyed the challenge. Before long he was putting his obsessive focus into endurance sports. He stopped partying so much and spent his weekends training. He applied his work ethic to sports and put in huge efforts in the triathlon disciplines. He especially liked biking, and he started going to Crested Butte, Colorado every summer to ride mountain bikes.
“I’ve been going to the mountains since 1990, you know, running, mountain biking, camping. When I was making 150 grand a year base, I was spending my money on tents and shit. This outdoor stuff is my life, this is what blows my hair back. I go up on the [Mogollon] Rim and spend the weekends hacking at weeds and chainsawing logs on the trails. Most people don’t think that. Most people think I’m just the guido disco sort of guy.”
Most people would be right to think that, since there are multiple videos of JLu in costume, drink in hand, dancing to disco music at the aid stations he organizes for various trail races. Even though his life mellowed considerably after college, to this day he continues to bring the fun parts of his wild past into running. He livens up every event he goes to with an attitude derived from completely different influences than most outdoorsy people.
In the mid-’90s a friend challenged him to run a 10k. “I was always doing these 60-mile mountain-bike rides, and I was like, ‘How hard can running be?’ Sure as shit, dude, my first run I puked. I felt, like, what the fuck’s wrong with me?”
His response was to work harder. He entered more races, and made some friends. Mountain running attracted him for the same reason it attracts many people: because it combines competition with wild places and exploration. Best of all, people in the trail running world were fun (“unlike triathletes, who don’t know how to make jokes”) and would join him both on runs and at the bars. Trail running was a bridge between his nightlife past and an endurance present.
It’s no coincidence that the sport of trail running is dominated by people from very similar socio-economic backgrounds. With a few notable exceptions, competitors tend to be middle- to upper-middle-class and white. A survey of prominent American races reveals that the demographics of the sport reflect this all the way to the back of the pack: trail running is predominantly a sport of well-educated people with disposable incomes. There are people from low-income, urban areas all over the country who could do extremely well in mountain running. But they have different lives, different cultures, different influences. Different, and generally fewer, opportunities.
JLu grew up in a world I can barely imagine. Every day was unpredictable, a struggle. He wanted a house, and a car, and the accoutrements that make up the American Dream. Us ‘mountain people’ like to make fun of that dream, but we live it whether or not we admit it. In the outdoor industry, people go to great lengths to mask their wealth, an insecurity that many brands understand and exploit. They know that outdoorsy people are materialistic but self conscious about it and they market to the unique set of traits that comprise us. My point is not that we are wrong for wanting new jackets; it’s that we are not so different from people like JLu, who leave poverty in search of a prosperity that people like me have known our whole lives.
Now JLu seems to be straddling a division between his old ideals and some new ones. He still has a nice house and three cars. But he’s also interested in simplifying, in having less stuff, in traveling more. He has left his pissed-off city-kid past behind and embraced a life where he works on the computer all day, goes to bed early, and runs on trails each morning. He says he’s glad he left New York, but he’s clearly proud to be from there. He retains a strong New York accent. He’s always swearing. He lifts weights and buys pastrami sandwiches from the local deli.
He is also unequivocally loyal to his friends, which he credits to his childhood in the city. He spends lots of time talking about the fights he has been in and pissing people off, running from the cops, having a rap sheet, all this stuff that’s only familiar to me from action movies. He doesn’t talk so much about the kind things he does. Those stories aren’t as fun. It’s not as interesting to talk about helping people organize races, doing trail work, pacing people through rough spells in races, making big dinners, hosting parties, and letting friends and family stay at his house for weeks. JLu goes out of his way regularly to do good things for the people he cares about, to an almost embarrassing extent. Almost embarrassing, but not quite: he plays it off with a hilarious self-awareness.
“Dude, you gotta’ come stay with me! I’m telling you, I got a whole IKEA bedroom set for you, with lavender-scented sheets and a little mini-fridge with snacks and water bottles. I even have fucking house plants to make it homely. Bring your lady, too!”
And this self-awareness illustrates another aspect of his personality: he’s super smart. Of course he downplays it. He shows off his biceps, and talks about getting into fights, and says he can’t remember anything. But he reads books all summer in the mountains, and he gets people to talk about the things they care about. Nobody has small talk with JLu. He’s smart because he really cares about the things he puts his attention to. It’s easy to remember the things you’re interested in, and he’s interested in everything. He also loves how nobody can figure him out. We keep trying, and he loves the attention.
“People put up all these walls–you know, the façade of bullshit–and I don’t have it. But I am a bit much. I run my mouth a lot. I know what I am 100% and there isn’t anything that I’d be afraid to tell anyone about my life.”
Lately he hasn’t been able to run like he wants to. His list of injuries is extensive: sciatica down both legs, Achilles problems, hamstring, foot, arm and wrist, myriad broken bones. “I got everything, man.” Most of these are overuse injuries from a lifetime of endurance sports. Some of them came from fights. A few years ago he rolled his Tacoma while doing trail work in northern Arizona: “I don’t know if I told you this–and I’m not lying–I got brain damage when I wrecked my truck. And now I have to deal with that. I don’t remember shit, I write notes all the time.”
But he’s still involved in the sport, still volunteering, still running, still bringing people together. JLu challenges our preconceptions of what a trail running event should be, and reminds us to laugh at ourselves. He does this by helping, by being optimistic and fun, by caring more about people’s experiences than their times. That’s it right there: he cares. You can say he’s annoying, and too loud, and crass, and whatever else. But you can never deny that he cares for his friends and the for the sport that brings them together.
At the Javelina Jundred each Halloween, he spends a week before the race setting up the aid station he runs, which has two sections. One is a normal aid station, with food, drinks, beds, chairs, all that stuff. The other section, slightly removed from the first, is a dance floor surrounded by speakers, streamers, lights, and a disco ball. People more often want to volunteer than run the race.
I think that duality pretty well sums up his attitude.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Do you know JLu? Do you have a story to share about running or hanging out at Hardrock or Javelina or somewhere else with him? Leave a comment!