Becoming Vulnerable

AJW's TaproomIn the four months since my heart-wrenching experience at the Hardrock 100, I have spoken to many people about what happened to me out there. Several friends have asked what some of the most important lessons were that I learned on that excruciatingly long day in July.

In reflecting on the day, three things stand out: the race tested my will like no other life experience has, it revealed an inner strength that I did not know I had, and, most of all, it stripped me raw and made me more vulnerable than I had ever been. It is this third lesson that has resonated with me most viscerally over the past four months.

Vulnerability is not something that is simple to understand or accept. Often viewed as weakness or softness, those of us who find ourselves in vulnerable positions sometimes resort to avoidance or denial rather than acceptance. It’s a challenging proposition as vulnerability, by definition, leaves us exposed and alone. When vulnerable, we are susceptible to attack and easily wounded.

In the arc of my running career I have had three distinct experiences that have exposed my vulnerability and threatened my well-being. In the course of making it through these places of raw self revelation, I have become a better runner and, I think, a better person.

At the 2004 Angeles Crest 100 Mile, I found myself in second place and four minutes behind the leader, Guillermo Medina, with 10 miles left to go. Wanting badly to notch my first-ever ultramarathon win, I turned myself inside out on those last 10 miles, attempting to take the lead. Sadly, for me, I never made it and needed to be content with a second-place finish. A few hours later, as a result of the intensity of my labor, I succumbed to rhabdomyolysis and acute renal failure. Laying in my hospital bed a few days later with intravenous fluids coursing through my veins I was forced, for the first time in my running life, to accept what I could and could not do. The lonesome, vulnerable feelings I had in that dark time are still with me today.

Eight years later, after a glorious run of seven-consecutive Western States finishes, I found myself standing at the starting line, watching 400 runners make their way out of Squaw Valley while I stood there nursing a debilitating knee injury which, in spite of my best efforts, was preventing me from running even a single step. At the end of that weekend I will never forget bidding goodbye to Western States Board President, John Trent, in tears. Certainly, I had enjoyed the weekend spectating and volunteering, but for me, I felt empty and hollow at the end of it. I’ll never forget John’s words when we hugged goodbye, “Don’t worry AJ, you’ll be back!” He sensed my vulnerability and with simple words helped me move forward.

And moving forward was simply what I had to do this past July as I made my way laboriously out of Cunningham Gulch and up the final climb of the Hardrock 100. Over the previous 36 hours I had been beaten down like never before. The mountains, the altitude, and the exposure had crushed me to a pulp. While I felt like I had no choice but to forge on, I felt so vulnerable that it was scary. Vulnerability and fear are not a good combination.

In the end, I got through it, as I had gotten through rhabdo and a meniscus tear before. But, in the getting through, I had been forever changed. I had been re-programmed as a newly vulnerable man facing all the failures and foibles of running and life that are so much a part of this long and winding journey. And when it happens again, which it inevitably will, I hope to be ready.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Pisgah Brewing Company in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Their Greybeard IPA is a simple IPA named after the tallest mountain in the area. A nice blend of hoppiness and maltiness, this is a great early winter IPA.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When was the last time you felt really vulnerable in your life? Can you explain what happened?
  • When has running beat you down and left you feeling raw? Was it worth it to go through the experience or do you wish it hadn’t happened?