Hope

On Saturday night, it hits me, Tomorrow is Easter. I should catch the sunrise. I can hear co-Barr Camp caretaker Mike in his loft across the way. “Hey, Mike, you’re still up! You cool if I run early? I wanna’ catch the sunrise.” “Sure, man, go for it. I’ll take care of things here,” he said. I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m.

When the alarm sounds, I crawl out of bed, clamber down from my loft, and put the tea kettle on the stove. I climb back up and start my physical-therapy exercises. I’m hoping I can finish before the kettle boils over. The thing doesn’t whistle. It just sputters out the spout and makes a mess. I’m 30 seconds from being done when I hear the spillover. I shoot down the ladder and turn off the gas.

I eat a muffin and drink a cup of tea that some guests sent from India. It’s good stuff, reminding me of the smoky goat-milk chai from Kenya. I’m only halfway through my physical therapy, but daylight is breaking. I don my gear and head out the door. I cut across the deck, run past the upper cabin, and hang a right on the Elk Park Trail.

The trail is a mix of dirt and deep snow. If it were warm, I’d be like Indiana Jones in the “Temple of Doom,” playing posthole roulette with each step. Fortunately, it’s cold and I skim across the top. I get to the base of Adaman Rock and begin to scramble.

I clear the final rock and stride across the top, the view opening wide. To my west lie the slopes of Pikes Peak. Last night’s moon hangs high above while the morning rays bring the slopes to life. To the south lies a snow-capped Almagre, all dressed up in the morning light. But, if this were a concert, these would be the opening acts. The headliner lies to the east.

Somewhere way out there is Kansas, and in front of that, the city of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Neither of these can be seen this Easter morning because in between it all and myself lies a lively layer of white, whispy clouds. And peeking through the clouds is a bright, yellow sun painting the sky a magnificent orange. The entire scene is one for the books.

A line from Placide Cappeu’s “O Holy Night” keeps running through my mind: “A [shred] of hope, the weary world rejoices.” If you are familiar with the song, you may know that Cappeu actually used the word ‘thrill’ and not ‘shred.’ But ‘shred’ is the word my mind mistakenly uses, partly in ignorance and partly because it feels appropriate.

A shred of hope: because sometimes in life hope seems all but lost. Bad times come and clouds settle in, blocking the sun. But then it breaks through, casting a shred of light upon the darkness. All of a sudden there is hope.

I spend a good half hour of Easter morning on Adaman Rock, watching the sun and clouds. Then it is time to run, first back to the cabin and then farther up the mountain. I run for a few hours. It is nice.

A couple of weeks prior to Easter, a local runner stopped by Barr Camp to visit. As we talked, I commented that hopefully things with the COVID-19 public health crisis would get better. He commented that hope wasn’t going to fix what we were dealing with. I couldn’t really argue with him, but I still feel hope has its place.

I think that hope is one of running’s greatest weapons. On August 28, 2015, I ran in and out of Trient, Switzerland while leading the 101-kilometer CCC race. I was leading, but as I left the aid station I saw fellow competitor Nicolas Martin running in. The climb out of Trient is steep, probably one of the steepest of the race. As I made my way up the mountainside, I could see Nicolas creeping up behind me.

I was being hunted, and my body was in immense pain. Yet, I had come so far and wasn’t about to give up. It was time to ride or die. And so, I pushed. Hard, real hard. Nicolas got so close, but somehow I was still in front. This was my glimmer of hope, and I clung to it.

I was the first to crest the climb. And then I started feeling good again. I found my groove and rode the wave all the way to the finish line in Chamonix, France. Hope prevailed and I won the race.

A year later, in 2016, I tried my hand at UTMB, my first go at the 100-mile distance. I lead all the way to Champex-Lac, Switzerland where I got caught and passed. I regained the lead on the climb out, but was caught by Ludovic Pommeret on my way into Trient. It was 2015 all over again, except that as Ludovic distanced me on the climb out of Trient, I let hope slip away with each step. Soon I was third, and then fourth, and by the finish I’d fallen back to sixth place.

Since those two days, I’ve essentially repeated both experiences. I’ve had magical days where I kept the hope alive and fought my way to victory, and days where I lost it and crumbled. And what I’ve learned through both situations is the power of hanging onto hope.

There are days in training when it’s incredibly tempting to slack off amidst a hard interval and there are races that are easy to give up on. But can you learn to treat hope like Easter morning’s rising sun? Even if night is dark, can you still find a shred of light? Perhaps it’s the rhythm of your breathing or the cadence of your stride. Maybe it’s refusing to walk on that next climb or keeping your powerhike strong and smooth. Or maybe it’s the goal you’ve set for yourself and a strong refusal to give up on it.

Whatever ray of hope you find, grab it and run with it. Run that trail as day breaks, climb that rock, and marvel at the rising sun. If you are lucky there’ll be some clouds, those tests and challenges that make rising above all the sweeter. So keep the hope, not because it fixes or accomplishes things on its own, but because moving forward with it does.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Is hope a useful tool for you as well?
  • If so, what kind of hope are you holding onto right now?
Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 4 comments

  1. Nancy Bradley

    A perfect piece and theme for our trying times! And I love your imagery of playing post hole roulette!
    Thanks and we miss you, Zach!

  2. Stephanie

    Thank you Zach. It is inspiring to chase the dawn and welcome the day with the sun. Hope to see you back running soon. Sharing your shred of hope of with us makes us all cling our own “shred” of hope, pushing us forward not to give up but keep grinding to see light at the end of the tunnel. Nice post.

  3. Andrew Brodsky

    Loved reading this … it reminds me of the day, a couple years ago, I decided to take a run up the Barr Trail and had a nice chat with the owner. Only later, after I read “Rise of the Ultrarunners”, did I realize that I’d been talking to the legendary Zach Miller!

    Even though my races for this summer are uncertain, I’m still focusing as if they’re going on — and just getting myself out into the mountains brings back my focus.

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