Zach Miller writes about the communities of support in trail and ultrarunning.

By on April 20, 2018 | Comments

Nicole Norton wandered in just before 7 a.m. I was still in bed, but my buddy Jonathan Lantz was awake and there to greet her. She was early. On a summer day, we would have been expecting her. But on this windy spring Monday, she caught us by surprise. Still tucked beneath the covers in my loft and only half awake, I listened to her explain her early arrival. “There is a red-flag warning starting at 10 a.m. because of the wind and my husband wants me done hiking before that,” she explained.

About 90 minutes later, Tim walked in. At 8:30 a.m., he too seemed early. By this point, I was sitting on the couch by the fire. We talked about the howling wind. “It seems to be staying mostly in the trees,” he said. A few minutes later (or was it earlier?), he expressed the difficulty of things. “Dang, dang, dang, it just never get’s any easier.”

Before he even left, another one popped through the door. Also a familiar face, Tina Mascarenas had taken the long way up the Heizer Trail and was about eight miles deep into her run. She spoke of the difficulty of the steep climb on Heizer, the challenge of the downed logs, and her need to train the steeps for her upcoming race in Greece. We chatted pretty casually. We talked about studying for the GRE, applying to medical schools, and most importantly, brunch. I also told her she should hit the steeps on Cameron Cone.

Two days prior, I too had had my battles with the wind and steeps as I did an interval workout to the summit of Pikes Peak. I told my buddies Brandon Stapanowich and Alex Nichols that the wind was so cold near the top that I skipped all the precious rest segments and just kept the hammer down. Fortunately, I was sheltered from most of the wind as I dropped down the east face. Given the recent snow, the trail conditions were anything but smooth. Footprints from previous passersby paved the way for a hop-scotch-type technique. As I made my way from one footprint to the next across the steep, choppy terrain, I longed for the chill in my body to subside. I also wanted my knee to quit bugging me. The knee has been nagging me for several weeks. Though it has improved greatly over that time, and continues to do so, it is still a nuisance. I longed for it to stop altogether and let me run free.

The following day, I planned to meet up with some friends going for an ascent of Cameron Cone, an incredibly steep mountain that towers high above the tiny town of Manitou Springs, Colorado. Given that I live 6.5 miles into the backcountry, and my friends were starting from town, I decided to go in the back way from Dark Canyon and find them along the way.

Despite having done a hard workout the day before, my legs felt pretty good as I picked my way through Dark Canyon. Gaining the saddle between Palsgrove and the Cone, I hung a right on the standard route and made the final push to the summit. No sign of my friends at the top, I turned back around and followed the trail back toward town. I figured this would be a good way to find them, that they must still be on their way up, and I would eventually bump into them. Thirty minutes later they were nowhere in sight. Thinking that I should have run into them by now, I stopped and pulled out my phone to text them. “Are you guys on the Cone Trail?” I asked. “On the summit now. Heading to Dark Canyon,” was the reply I got back from my buddy Brandon. “Okay. I’ll head that way,” is what I texted back.

Putting my phone away and heading back up the trail, I pondered if I should try to take a shortcut and whether or not I’d ever catch them. All they had to do was scramble through some boulders and follow the trail to the saddle that I had been on earlier that morning. A quick left there and they would be dropping into Dark Canyon. In the meantime, I had to regain much of the elevation I had just lost just to reach the saddle and drop back into the canyon that I had passed through earlier that morning. Really wanting to catch them, I found a pace that some might call pressing, but not pushing, and continued my search. Once at the saddle I pulled out my phone, texted an update to Brandon, and dropped into the canyon. Traversing the scree field that drops steeply into the canyon, I noted there didn’t seem to be much in the way of fresh tracks. I continued on anyhow and after a short bit I decided to let out a holler. Much to my delight, the call was returned and in about 20 seconds my friends came into view.

From there, we made the steep climb up Mary’s Mountain, hung out on the summit for a bit, and headed north toward Rocky Top. Somewhere between Mary’s and Rocky Top, we started discussing injuries and that trying road to recovery that runners struggle with so much. We spoke of the tendency to analyze and compare everything, always thinking about how the body is feeling, what it was able to do (or not do), and how that stacks up against the days, weeks, and months before.

In one way, it can be useful. Doing a status check from one day to the next can help a person to recognize that they actually are making progress. Sure, the injury may still be present, but the fact that today was better than yesterday and this weekend’s run was far ahead of last weekend’s serves as a form of encouragement. And yet, at the same time, as one in our group expressed that day, it’s exhausting. And I couldn’t agree more. Having an injury, even a small one that doesn’t completely halt the training process, can be very draining. Doubt, worry, and fear seem a constant threat as the mind tries to analyze every little niggle.

It’s like that wind that had Nicole hiking bright and early or the steep climb and downed logs that Tina faced. All of those things can seem very relentless. Sometimes they make us want to turn back, or worse yet, stay home altogether. At times, such decisions may be a good idea, but many times, I believe what it takes is to stay the course. That being said, the course does not have to be stayed alone. The wind may blow, but as Tim expressed, it stays mostly in the trees. It can gust at 60 miles per hour far above the trees atop Pikes Peak, but dip down low and those towering giants provide a blanket of protection.

It makes me think of my group of friends that day. Were we all 100 percent healthy during that run? No way! I was dealing with knee niggles, Hillary Allen was working her way back from a brush with death last summer in Norway, and Chica the dog was just trying not to get sprayed by her third skunk of the year. But, amidst the group there was strength. Sure, there were doubts, worries, and fears present, but there were people (and dogs) to share them with.

We were our own grove of trees that day, shielding each other from the wind (and skunks). This doesn’t mean that none of the wind got through. The struggles were still there, but we had supporters, encouragers, and empathizers to hold us up. Like a grove of aspen trees with their roots interconnected, we were stronger together.

And yet, as important as it is to have an immediate grove of trees within which you can take shelter, it is also important to remember that your little grove is part of a much bigger forest. Other groves may have different styles. They may be older, younger, wilder, or more reserved, but that doesn’t mean that they should be excluded or shut out. By the end of the run that day, we found ourselves eating ice cream at the legendary Matt Carpenter’s ice-cream shop. (Okay, technically it’s a custard shop, but ice cream sounds better in my head and we always call it Matt’s ice-cream shop anyhow.) You might say that Matt is the mightiest and wisest oak tree in town, but there he was, casually chatting with us as we ate our frozen treats. Our grove was young. He had many rings of wisdom. And yet we were of the same forest.

So no matter where you’re from, who you are, or what you have or have not done, whether you’re a Coconino Cowboy, a Cappuccino Cowboy, a Rocky Mountain Runner, a Team Coloradan, a Mount Tam shredder, an San Francisco Running Company group runner, a Mountain Peak Fitness(er), an F&M Track Club(er), a Central Mass Strider, a New York Road Runner, a Genesee Valley Harrier, an Achilles International Athlete, or anything, or nothing else, I hope you feel welcomed, accepted, supported, and protected in the forest of running and life.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Who would you say are ‘your people?’
  • What group or groups do you identify with in the trail and ultrarunning community?
  • And, of those groups about which you have personal knowledge, how would you say they are the same as other groups in the worldwide running community, past and present? What similarities do you share? What connections link you?
  • What groups of the worldwide running community are you eager to learn about and experience for the first time? Or, what connections do you want to make?
Zach Miller
Zach Miller lives in a school bus he outfitted himself. 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.