Born to run

“Do you think I need to wear a shirt?” I asked my running partner.

“No way dude; it’s 85 degrees and sunny,” Jonathan replied.

He was right, we should have started this run hours ago. I already felt woozy just getting out of the car and putting on sunscreen. So, I threw my T-shirt in the Subaru, and we headed up Animas Mountain for our run.

Sometimes-Durango resident Al Smith III running up Cascade Creek.

Forty minutes later, on the top of our beloved Animas, storm clouds rolled in over the La Plata Mountains. On the descent, thunder erupted and a vicious hailstorm ensued, pelting our exposed bodies and feeling like getting constantly poked by needles. All we could do was laugh, insanely, and continue on and endure the abuse.

“I’m really glad I didn’t bring that T-shirt,” I snarkily remarked to Jonathan when we arrived back at the trailhead.

I got into running because I had to. I needed it. I have an addictive personality, and only escaped living the life of a drug addict because I moved from Illinois to Colorado and found activities that released the endorphins and adrenaline into my body. I’ll stand by this statement until the day I die: exercise is better than any drug.

I remember in high school when I was a hippie kid who smoked pot and cigarettes 24/7. I despised running. When we were forced to do the mile in gym class, I nearly died, pushed to the point of dry heaves, side aches and a general hatred for the activity.

I finally got into trail running five years ago when I moved back to Gunnison full time and was forced to endure the brutally cold winters. It sounds counterintuitive, I know, go skiing most people would say, but I don’t ski. I’m as much as a threat to myself on skis as I would be putting a needle in my arm. Some people are made to go with gravity, and some are made to fight it. And, the others, well I cannot speak for them. To me inactivity of the body is a death sentence.

Anyways, for a few years after graduating from college, I managed a transient lifestyle. I’d skip out on the epic, six-month Gunnison Valley winters and return for the perfect summers. Then I got a job, a serious, year-round, nine-to-five desk job, doing public relations. I flipped the switch from dirtbag to professional; ripped T-shirts and ragged jeans to collared shirts and slacks. Ah, the roles we play in life. And, for a time, I loved it.

It started with lunch break runs; even though it was cold, it was sunny. I ran on snow and the Vitamin D soaked into my soul. I returned to my desk happy and full of endorphins.

I couldn’t have picked a better time to get into trail running. It was around the time when Born to Run by Christopher McDougall was published. The pages in that book turned themselves, and the only place my mind travelled while reading it were to my local trails. It was an understatement to say that I was inspired. My stoke for running was on fire.

It didn’t hurt that my back yard was Hartman Rocks, 30 square miles of rolling sagebrush and granite boulders, with snowcapped mountains in the distance. When it rained, the diving smell of sage penetrated the soul, a spiritual, peaceful refuge.

Every runner has an ideal distance for a perfect workout. When you first get into trail running the excitement is high because you’re finding that distance. That day when you run farther than you ever have before can be a great feeling. Or, you can bonk and feel like shit. Trail running is always a balance between loving running and hating it. I found my ideal maximum distance to be around 17 miles. To run a 100-mile race, like many mountain folk do, would probably make me hate running forever.

Reading the last pages of Born to Run, which covers the Tarahumara Indians and the Leadville 100 running race, among other topics, was sad. I wanted it to keep going, forever. Fortunately the type of characters that were in the book lived in Gunnison. I had two friends, Tim Parr and Duncan Callahan, who have won the Leadville 100. One of my co-workers, Elva Dryer, was an Olympic runner. The best part was they didn’t have the egos that they could have had because they were some of the best runners in the world. When we talked running, the passion was shared.

I think that’s what I love the most about the running community in Colorado; it’s a communal, shared experience. There’s no gear that makes you stand out as more important than someone else. The person who is trying to better him or herself through running can share the same trail with the best runner in the world. The many races that happen throughout the spring, summer and fall in our region are a testament to everything that is good about the human race. Aid stations can offer a drink and food, or they can offer a shot of stoke. A few kind words at the right time can offer mountains of inspiration to continue on the journey.

Eventually, I got tired of a 9-5 desk job and those cold Gunnison winters, and moved down here, to Durango. The running here is just as good as it is up there in God’s country. The shared passion is here, and I’m getting excited to train for the Durango Double in October.

I continue to experience mishaps, episodes of bonking and general suffering on the trails. Last fall my brother and I got lost in a haze of fog coming off Engineer Mountain, and spent six hours struggling down a drainage, only to emerge in Cascade Canyon. Then there are the days where you start in the sunshine and end up getting nailed by hail, while thunder erupts behind you, begging you to run faster.

Most days, when I’m hydrated, well rested, and warmed up, running turns into bliss. That endorphin high, where with one foot in front of the other, a flow is felt, and there’s something meditational and healthy about the experience. And, perhaps, Bruce Springsteen said it best, “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

– Luke Mehall