Death on the Trail

AJWs TaproomLast 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.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Good Life - Descender IPAThis 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?

There are 2 comments

  1. Aaron Sorensen

    Michael was my best friend.

    We first met while challanging each other on the JMT for the unsupported record and have been bst friends since.


    Thank you for the article.

    I know you don't hit on how this happened, but how this happened was an eye opener as well as confussing and sad.

    Outside Magazine did a great article about his last run and if you knew Michael, please take 5 minutes of time to read this. The link is bellow

    Thank you again

    Aaron Sorensen

  2. Alex (@alexbridgefor

    How do you place the deaths of these athletes (and others) dieing doing what they love? —– There's no way to know when a life will, especially when it is random like those two. We need to live to the fullest and accept the necessary risks, and mitigate unnecessary risks.

    How do you balance doing what you love with increased risk of injury or worse? —— Well, being in the Army, we learn to mitigate risks very well. I think its one of those thing you really need to consider what you're going to do before you do it.

  3. marco

    I met Michael Popovov once in a Pacific Coast Trail run where he was the RD. He seemed like a nice guy. Having met him made it seem more real to me and it made me reflect on my life and the risks I take. I realized taht I take more risks going to work every day because I have a long commute (140 miles round trip) than going out for a 100 mile run once a year or all the 50m and 50ks I do in a year. People probably die more often on the roads every year than in any other activity. One thing I know is that I don't love commuting, so I hope that when I die, and I know I will someday, I die out on the trail running. Doing what I love.

  4. David Wronski

    Michael was the nicest person I'd ever met since I began trail running, and in my life in general. He helped keep me alive in some of the lowest points I've ever faced on a trail. I will never forget the 50+ miles we shared together on the Tahoe Rim Trail, during my 165 attempt only a few weeks ago. I never thought my last goodbye to him after we finished the entire TRT, would be forever, but his great outlook on life, and adventurous lifestyle will be in my soul forever…and I will plan on continuing in greater adventures, in memory of my great friend Michael Popov. His spirit will live on in all of us who were close to him, and that's the most comforting aspect of this entire unfortunate situation.

  5. Ken Posner

    Those of us who have run Badwater are probably the most surprised. We show up for the race with plenty of heat training under our belts, we've got all the water we need and an attentive crew watching over us, plus we stick to the road. The heat is an issue, but worst case to a racer is needing the dreaded IV. Astonishing how even a seemingly short hike can prove deadly. I guess the valley's name is no joke.

    This is also a reminder that it's all too easy to overestimate our capabilities, especially when we've been successful in the past. even the nicest people can make this mistake. Risk management has to start with recognizing this

  6. Tollie Bibb

    Thank you so much for this timely article. None of us knows when death will call us. I have always said it would be okay if I would die on a run. This past May I begin to experience some mild chest pain and since I had my 69th birthday coming up on June 20 I decided to go see a cardiologist. My appointment was scheduled for three p.m. on May 31. I saw the doctor, explained my symptoms I had been having and he did a couple of quick test and then sent me straight to the Fresno heart and surgery center for more test. To shorten the story I had quadruple bypass surgery at noon the next day. The doctors said I was fortunate to be alive. I had 90 to 95 percent blockage on the two right side arteries and 75 percent blockage on the left side.

    Byron I have been running for fifty years as of this past June. The doctors said that is probably why I am still alive. There was no known cardiovascular disease history in my family.

    I am thankful to be alive. My recovery is going great. Finally I got permission to begin one slow running again (12-13 mi. pace). Even that is great. Since July 1, I have walked and easy ran 223 miles. I am looking forward to many more miles and hopefully some trail runs beginning in October.

    Again thank you for this article and thank you for all the work you put in on the website. This provides a great service to us mediocre trail bums.

    Have. Blessed day,

    Tollie Bibb

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