Saturday, August 1, 2015


 "This is the price you pay for loss of control" (Brand New)

In the summer of 2009 I strolled into Missoula a broken human.

Emotionally, spiritually and mentally, I was most certainly not at my strongest, but physically, I was a a complete wreck. The previous two years (2007-2009) had been rich with running, including 700+ consecutive days of high-mileage running, with the final 365 days clocking in at a 16-mile-per-day-average. I had quite-nearly-literally "run" myself into the ground.

But I didn't know it. The hopeless optimist within me refused to accept the writing on the wall: my best runs were behind me. Because running - distance (always further) and speed (always faster) - had become my litmus test for overall vitality, acceptance of this simple, poetic and wholly self-evident fact, meant accepting that life as I knew it was over. 

From 2007-2009, my social life, in effect, had been put on pause. Unknowingly, and certainly unintentionally, I had culled the relationships in my life down to the few who were hopelessly loyal and the handful that served important functions (baristas, colleagues and friends with free tickets to things). It was a completely and utterly selfish chapter of my life. So consumed by running was I that all sacrifices - social and otherwise - appeared noble.

All right, so my stroll into Missoula in July of 2009 was a step into the beginning of the end: or so I thought. Although it took me years to actually admit it to those close to me, I knew deep within  that my running days were winding down and I also knew that it was necessary to find the 'next big thing' in my life.

My first year in Missoula included two knee surgeries and the subsequent, but unrelated, diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Talk about humbling. Within months of arriving in Missoula, I was reduced to short painful walks/hikes. But I did it, I walked. And walked and walked and walked.

And I continued walking through the surgeries, injections, medication changes, physical therapy sessions and the ever-present fear of permanent, irreversible disability. Throughout the entire transition, mountains remained my obsession. Why shouldn't they? It was the love for movement up, down and around mountains that drove me west to Colorado from Southern Minnesota eleven years ago. 

Linds and I on Mount Sentinel for the first time together!
Mount Sentinel, the guardian of Missoula and home of the city's iconic "M", looms 2,000 vertical feet above the valley floor, abruptly forming the city's eastern boundary. Ask the average Missoulian on the street if they have hoofed it up to the “M” and they will invariably respond with a fervent “yes!” as if it were right of passage (which it is). Ask the same individual if they have stood on the summit of Mount Sentinel - some 1,300 feet higher - and the answer will likely be no, they have not. I will not get into the reasons for this, because I do not know those reasons. What I do know is that if you haven’t been to the summit, you should. It provides quite arguably Missoula’s best view, particularly in the evening. 

My second day in Missoula saw my first attempt at the mountain. Pretending to be a runner, I ran from my residence in the upper-Rattlesnake in-and-around-Missoula on a sweltering summer day. Smitten with the sight of such an accessible and steep mountain, I headed for the base of Mount Sentinel. Halfway up, my nose began to seethe blood. Oh no! I immediately removed my shirt and began tearing it into strips that could be used as nose plugs as I continued the ascent. A few hundred feet from the top the situation became untenable: my shirt was completely soaked with blood and the nosebleed showed no sign of abating. Regrettably, I turned around and began the bloody descent and return run home. 

I don’t remember if it was the next day or a few days later, but within a week of the first attempt, I stood on top of Mount Sentinel. And it began.

102 degree summit in June of this year. 
Six years and 492 ascents later, my love for Mount Sentinel has done nothing but grow. I have hiked and climbed the mountain by over a dozen routes, including six different routes up the steep, trail-less north face. I have been on top during the hottest and coldest days (during the hottest and coldest time of day) of the last three years. I have completed run, hike, sled, mountain bike and snowboard descents of dozens of routes. Needless to say, Mount Sentinel - in addition to dozens of other peaks - replaced running as my physical obsession.

Now, here I sit, within striking distance of 500 summits and my attitude has shifted. The need for balance and health has finally supplanted my irrational fixation on a single summit. My poor body! It has withstood countless ascents and descents against its will (and my better judgment).

Unable to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime climbing trip, I find myself sidelined by yet another overuse injury, but this time it feels different. No, not the injury (it's the same), but my attitude (it's different). Peace. I feel the kind of peace that comes from knowing that something terribly committing and wholly consuming is over. If my life were interesting enough to fill the pages of a book, this would be the section with the epiphany, the awakening that leads to a substantive life change. 

Negative temps and a beautiful day after climbing in the
shadows of the north face of Mount Sentinel.
One of my biggest fears in life - if not the biggest - is losing a sense of purpose. Fortunately, over the past several years my life has taken on a renewed sense of purpose. Linds, friends and a meaningful job have buoyed my day-to-day sense of purpose. All of these things are wonderful, but there remains a deep primordial need for movement in the mountains. I can trace back my introduction to this need to a a single fateful event: hiking Hallet’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park with my family when I was 13-years-old. Boom! In a single moment my passion for mountain movement was unlocked. And it began.

And it continues. My imagination continues to outpace my bodies’ physical capabilities. I look into the mountains and see infinite opportunities for creativity and flow. 'Traverse this, climb that, can it be done in a day, half-a-day, an hour?' These are the thoughts that pervade my day. 

But what of the ‘substantive life change’? My actions - and it will not be perfect, at first - will be driven by my bodies' ability and not by my mind’s desires. This means abundant rest, substantial cross-training and a deep well of patience.

I made my way back to physical therapy this week. It feels like the right thing to do. If picking a passion was as easy and simple as Pinterest, I would have swapped out endurance-ultra mountain movement with knitting years ago. In spite of all of the evidence - injury, risk, etc. - against my pursuits, the flame, albeit a flicker, continues burning.

At this point, I suspect the 500th summit of Sentinel will probably come around the end of August or maybe it will come in September, October, November or December. It doesn't much matter. I am no longer in a hurry. The summit is no longer of interest to me as another number on a spreadsheet, but rather as a test of overall health and vitality. Moving on injured legs is no longer a part of that formula. My body, not my mind, will dictate when I stand on top again. And again and again and again. In this way, it will be a cause for celebration. I will share the 500th summit with family and friends. We will celebrate life while listening to ‘Sail’ on my compact speaker system. We will rejoice.

And rejoice and rejoice and rejoice.

Peace, love, gratitude and all that good stuff,


                                                       Mount Sentinel Snowboard Descent (2014)

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