To Be Real

» Posted by on Aug 9, 2013 in Blog | 26 comments

For, love makes for sensitivity, for vulnerability. That which is sensitive is capable of renewal. Then truth will come into being. Krishnamurti

As I stumble along the windy, exposed Bear Creek trail leading into Ouray, two thoughts run through my head, don’t fall off the cliff and what the fuck is happening to me? I have been eating and drinking well, comfortably setting the pace most of the race in front of Seb, enjoying our conversation and wildlife sightings, yet something within me all of a sudden feels profoundly wrong. I am not bonking; I know that sensation intimately. My legs do not hurt either. I am not particularly nauseous or hot. Yet, I am overcome by a growing sense of apathy and disconnect from the race. A deeper malaise is overwhelming me as I struggle to keep running in a straight line. A few spectators voice their encouragements, telling me to keep it up and that Seb is only minutes ahead. I want to stop and tell them something is wrong with me, that I am no longer concerned about the race, but simply my own well-being. Stopping would be futile though, there is not much to explain that would make any sense. The only quick, relatable bite of information I can give people is that I was peeing blood after the descent off of Handies Peak- a serious consideration regardless of what activity you are doing, let alone halfway through a mountainous hundred mile foot race.
My pee had a dark coffee like coloration with an underlying red tint. This is the only time I have seen such a color of fluid come out of my body, save perhaps after a night of eating beet salad and drinking too much wine. While the bloody urine is concerning, more troubling to me is that I do not feel particularly bad physically, but rather the issue seems to have triggered a deeper reaction in my emotional core. Coming into Ouray, a few miles out from the aid station, I start hyperventilating, tears rolling down my cheeks. I simply cannot control my feelings and am overwhelmed by the weight of my emotions. I miss my grandfather. Why am I processing these feelings now? This is not the time or place to do so. This is not the reason why I race. Or is it?

Trivializing an event that you know well and love is easy. I find comfort in these mountains. I know every turn, every up and down of the course. I have run well here before and know the satisfaction of putting together a good race. I know how to pace myself, march up the steep hills over the passes and flow down into the valleys. Physically, I am in the best shape of my life. Mentally, I thought I was bulletproof after enduring the Iditarod. The Hardrock 100 is a known quantity to me. Difficult and trying, but not intimidating. Distilling a race to its basic parts from specific training to time goals, nutrition and strategy creates an expectation of the forthcoming experience and outcome. There is no room for another experience to happen, nor for discovery. I come in focused and ready to execute my plan.  Yet, I now feel the race slipping out of my control. My references for what is physically and mentally demanding to me are no longer there. I fight this reality, refusing to give in, denying what is happening to me. I do not want people to see me this way. I do not want to succumb to weakness. The very nature of this sport demands toughness. The ability to suppress how one is feeling is rewarded. Our heroes take on near mythical images of valiant warriors who triumph through pain and strife. Vulnerability is not acceptable. I can tough out a bum knee or blown quads, bad weather or stomach, wait patiently and get through a rough patch. This is different though.

I walk into the Ouray aid station and take a chair. Deanne crouches in front of me offering calm and soothing words of encouragement. Tony hustles to get me a grilled cheese sandwich and water, while Nick is prepared to start pacing me over to Telluride. It is comforting to be surrounded by my wife and close friends. I tune out everything else around me and try to get myself back in the game. I reassure my crew, that since Grouse, I have peed a little having drank an immense amount of water over Engineer Pass and that the color has improved to being no longer bloody. However, I tell them that I am confused, feeling like there is something really wrong with me, and I am unable to get a good read on my sensations.

After thirty minutes, Nick accompanies me out of the station and we make our way towards Camp Bird road. I can only walk since every time I try running, I have an intense desire to pee, yet nothing comes out. My bladder and lower back are sore and I fear I might be experiencing early signs of rhabdo. Diana Finkle catches up to me as we merge onto the Perimeter trail. Diana nearly died a few years back from rhabdo, so I heed her advice to not push so far as to induce irreversible damage. I try to follow her and her pacer up Camp Bird road to distract myself from my struggles, to no avail. As soon as they disappear out of sight, I sit down in the middle of the road and start bawling my eyes out. I apologize to Nick for my outward display of weakness. I cannot mask it though. My natural inclination is to always deal with grief positively. Not that I try to suppress my feelings, simply I am an inherently happy person. I could typically shake off painful emotions by finding something positive in just about anything. But, here my physical vulnerability has pried me open to a place where I cannot be anything but real. I am glad Nick is by my side. I do not need to explain anything to him. He does not give me unwarranted advice, nor does he judge. His presence is enough to feel loved and supported. I declare that I am done with the race and start walking back down the hill. Whatever is affecting me physically has somehow thrown off my emotional balance. While I can rationalize my condition, this is a new type of feeling, completely draining and overpowering.
“Let’s just make it to Virginus Pass. Roch will be there. He’ll know what to say.” Nick offers. I agree to give it one more try. For about a half-hour things seem to fall back into place. We walk slowly, but continuously up the road. Then out of nowhere, I am back sitting on the side of the road, crying. Fuck, man! Fuck! I just don’t know why this is happening. I can’t handle myself right now. I’m overwhelmed. My confusion is further perpetuated by the fact that my body feels reasonably OK. I am also fully aware of my breakdown as if observing myself from above. Why can I not overcome this blockage? Why can I not resettle the chemistry?

We had just passed Arc’teryx photographer, Brian Goldstone, so I urge Nick to run back down the road to stop him before he drives away. A light rain has picked up and I cannot help, but think how pathetic I must look, hunched over on the side of the road, dripping wet. Shortly after Brian and Nick get to me, we are joined by Fitz Cahall and Austin Siadak of Duct Tape Then Beer media productions. They had spent the past week with me capturing some film for a project about Hardrock. I wanted to give them something good on race day, a glorious finish, not a complete melt down. I feel embarrassed. I have never been this publicly vulnerable. I want to leave and go home, but cannot let go of the expectation to perform, to do something, to finish at least. I am torn inside with the knowledge that something is not right both physically and emotionally, but I also do not want to let anyone down. I try to explain what is going on, but just ramble in circles.
Finally, I realize that I just need to be real. It is difficult to openly accept how you feel, to be authentic and not hide behind a façade or an image of what you think people expect you to be. It is often easier to show fortitude and courage than to concede defeat. I declare for the second time, but officially now, that I am done with the race. With that said, Fitz gets out of the car and hugs me, followed by Austin, Nick and Brian. It is strange how a short heightened moment can deeply intensify relationships. I cannot be thankful enough for their support.

This experience has brought to light the true value and reason as to why I run these races. From the first half shared in great camaraderie with Seb Chaigneau to my subsequent unraveling into a darker emotional place, it became clear to me that I run to feel. I run for the experience. I train hard and prepare as best I can, but I do not want every race to have an expected outcome, to go just as I had planned. Where is the value in leaving out discovery and self-examination? The process is not always pleasurable nor controllable, but it is real. Sharing in these moments with others is a privilege and with each race that goes by I am less driven by times and places and more so by the collective experience and the friendships that are forged.


  1. Great read Joe! Thanks for the honesty and the positivity you seem to almost always embody. Running to feel; great conclusion from a tough experience.

  2. Thanks for sharing that, Joe. I have often wondered why I cannot explain clearly, verbally, why I run ultras, not even to myself, let alone to others. But being an artist/designer/right-brainer, I’ve always been certain that it’s very connected to that creative, emotional part of me. I was following Hardrock on Twitter. Not only were you my favorite to win, but you were 2nd favorite dude in the race (after my friend Billy Simpson). As I read others’ descriptions of your experience I felt heartbreak for you. At that time I was in a vehicle with 3 friends on our way to run the Leadville Silver Rush 50, so of course I could not share that emotion with them, lest I be real. Glad you are okay.

  3. Thanks for an inspiring read Joe, i have the upmost respect for your honesty.

  4. thanks for inpsiring updates/blogs and rad photos. you, AK, Wolfe, Jurker and the boys embody the essence of what adventure and trail running is all about. much love

  5. Très beau récit.


  6. Thanks for sharing your story and experience in such rich detail. I hope recovery is going well.

  7. Joe,
    What a great way to show the honestly of what we do. Sometimes the trail give us what we need not what we want. Cheers

  8. Perfect.

  9. This was such a nourishing read, Joe. Being stripped raw and forced to be real is so painful and yet so good for all of us — thanks for having the courage to be authentic. There is strength born out of weakness and I’m seeing glimpses of it here.

    Hugs from the Springs and wishing you a happy heart as you pursue your mountain adventures.

  10. Proud of ya buddy. Great write up.

  11. I thought you ran for the buckles.

    Was sorry to see you drop and figured it had to be pretty bad. I would not discount the signs you saw.

    Glad it was temporary, and just dehydration etc. I recently had an ears, nose throat doc tell me I was dehydrated, which was pretty embarrassing as a runner, since I thought I knew myself pretty well. But the combo of caffeine, alcohol, and running in CO (and winter at the time!) can do that.

    Great post as always.

  12. Joe…sounds like the millions of other comments you get but i love your writings and pics. This one almost brought me to tears..thanks for the honesty. Loved the article

  13. Good write up Joe! Glad you were able to wrap your head around such an intense and bizarre experience. After ITI and now this you’ve experienced some deep/profound shit this year! Now press on!

  14. Never knew this side of you Joe but I think I just became one of your biggest fans. Takes a big man to write stuff like this. Thank you for sharing. This is going to make you stronger. Great job.

  15. Joe, thanks for your honesty. Always so wonderful to hear/read about one’s self-reflections.
    Hope you are healing.

  16. There’s a song I love with lyrics, “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth,” expressing the notion, inter alia, that we’ll not harm others and leave the world a better place.

    You do that, Joe. Yes, perfect.

  17. Run to feel. So true. You did a damn good job trying to put own emotions into words – and on “paper” to boot.

  18. Your write up shows a lot of courage, you bared yourself. Your last line is something I couldn’t agree with more. Recently I ran an ultra with zero expectations and complete lack of training (my friends talked enough trash to me that I finally gave in to do it) and had more fun at that race than any thus far.

    When traveling it is great to be spontaneous and just see what happens when you get there. That has become my approach to ultras. Of course I will do enough training to be safe, but past that the experience instead of a top tier finish is more satisfying.

  19. This is like reading an exposed nerve. Thank you for being so open and honest, and for sharing your experience.

  20. i too have been there. thanks for writing it so well. and as always awesome photos! hope to see you again soon

  21. Beautiful Joe. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Man. You are great. Honestly great respect. Go foth

  23. Shelby’s right. Nourishing read. I hope it was nourishing for YOU to write it and push that ‘publish’ button to unleash it into the world.

    When you open up, nearly everyone will envelop you in response and solidarity. The rest? Fuck ’em.

  24. Thanks Joe – vital focus for all of us.

  25. Superbe récit !

    Thank you for your sharing, your honesty ! Reading you is like running and suffering with you ! Respect !

  26. Great read and you really summed it up in the last paragraph, thanks for sharing-


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