This Is Your Reality, Or Is It?

I was 80 miles deep in the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile in 2011. The temperatures had been close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the middle of the day with little shade. I had muscle cramps, was puking, and had been on the verge of heat exhaustion for most of the day. I was so mentally foggy that I honestly have no memory from parts of the race. Let’s just say this is one of those times where I was happy to not have any family there to see me in this state. I was complaining about how tired I was and everything I had gone through when my pacer Dema, a 6’3’’ dread-locked friend originally from Ghana boomed out with his deep voice, “Travis, this is your new reality. You must accept it and know that it is not going to change.” He was right: I never regained fresh legs or felt great again but there was something that clicked about his statement. The chance of things getting worse were unlikely. This was my new baseline. This was the hand I was dealt and I had to play it until this race was over or quit. I chose the former.

Like many, I have a love affair with the idea of living out of the back of my jeep in some little mountain town. I would get up in the morning, throw on a puffy coat and a stocking cap, open the tailgate and brew up some coffee or hot tea with my camp stove. It would steam in the cold air while I’d take that first sip and appreciate the terrain. I’d have a career of doing odd jobs, working in a cafe or some little store on the main drag in town selling touristy t-shirts like the one I bought in Silverton, Colorado last year. The rest of my time would be spent cruising around on the trail, exploring the area, and scrambling up the side of things while training for races all over the place. Free to do as I please, that’s the ticket!

This love affair is always cut short. I’m married, have a six-year-old daughter, and a stable job. In the world of outdoor adventure, this is not an overly exciting statement to start with, but it is what I have and it means something to me. I want to be able to provide a good life for my wife and for us to retire someday. I want my daughter to have opportunities to try out new things, go to good schools, and pursue her dreams as she gets older. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the kind of parent that just gives their kid whatever she wants. I’m the son of some hard-working parents myself. My dad is in his 33rd year of working in a coal mine, a job he still says is temporary until he finds something better. My mom manages a sleep lab at a hospital. She went to college to start this career when I was about 10.

In fact, I’d say it’s watching these two work their butts off that has always kept me closer to the nine to five and away from the ‘live on the edge’ lifestyle. I’m also not an elite athlete, meaning that making a living off my legs is not much of an option. I train hard and can hold my own at a local level. I tend to do well relatively at mountain races despite my flatlander status, but that is not really a stat one can hang his livelihood on. At some point one has to accept that passion can only take you so far and genetics start playing a role. If I was at capable of being part of the highest echelon of the sport, I’m fairly certain some other signs would have popped by now. That is not to say I am done trying or have peaked. It’s just that I have to accept that a 15-hour Western States is pretty much out of the question.

I was born in Illinois. Girard, Illinois to be exact. I met my now wife, Micaela, in junior high at Girard. I went to college at Eastern Illinois University in, you guessed it, the eastern part of the state. My first job was only 30 miles north of where I grew up in Springfield. Even my current job in Saint Louis is only about an hour and a half from my hometown. Most of my family and my wife’s family are all from and continue to live in this area as well.

“That guy is from Illinois?!” was heard as I crossed the finish line at the Big Horn 50 Mile in Wyoming last year in a respectable time for a guy who lives at 553 feet above sea level. It was a compliment in a weird way but I know my current locale is holding me back. You probably want to ask, “Back from what? You just said you were not elite?” I’m not, but I am still fanatical about an outdoor lifestyle, about having mountainous terrain available to me to be the best I can, about training and racing on amazing singletrack, about inspiring views, and being a part of the ‘scene’ that drives me. Mentally and physically, I want more from my surroundings. I have a great community where I am now. I have amazing friendships and a small group of us hit the local hard trails almost every weekend. These trails are solid and are right up there (in difficulty, not altitude) with pretty much anything I have run in ultras to date, but there are only a couple of these trails in the Saint Louis area. I feel like I want a different scene, but I was born, raised, and have worked near here my whole life. I should stay here… this is my reality, right, just accept it and keep on going?

I can’t cut ties with the outside world and live out of a camper near a lake on top of a mountain because I can’t just stop working and providing for my family. I can’t use my running talents to pay the bills. What can this regular guy do to feed the fire within? I can relocate. I’m lucky to work for a large company with offices in most major metro areas. I started networking a bit with some peers and managers in our west region and sure enough, after about two years of looking and waiting for the right opportunity, one came. My wife, daughter, and I are going to go out on a limb, break from the routines, leave our support system, and try a new adventure. We are leaving the place we have called home our entire lives to marry up my professional world with my running world. We are moving to Portland, Oregon. It is not the mecca of trail running but it is a major upgrade for me and a place I can raise a family. It gives my wife a great location to work, shop at the farmers’ markets, and explore the local arts community. My daughter gets the opportunity to go to great schools, be involved in a variety of activities, and see a little more unique side of this country of ours. I get to continue down my career path while still being a part of the ultrarunning scene and being somewhere with great access to the things that inspire me the most.

There will be an adjustment. I’m leaving behind my best friends and training partners. I will have to determine the right way, if any, to continue to be a co-race director for the Mark Twain Endurance Runs after this year. It will not be as easy as having a security blanket of all of our friends and family close by, but life is short and every now and then you have to make a new baseline for yourself. This is my new reality.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you made a major change to your life to follow at least in part your passion?
  • Do you feel the pull of your family/friends as well as the call of the wild? How do you rectify this sometimes dichotomy?
Travis Liles

resides in Portland, Oregon where he is a husband, father, and a technical specialist for a software company. In his spare time, he is exploring his new home in the Pacific Northwest, getting more vertical but still not living in the thin air, while producing "Trail Trials with Travis Liles" video gear reviews for iRunFar.