Fish-outta-water is how I felt while boarding a bus at the San Antonio airport to drive two hours with dozens of military men and women, all of us headed to a trail-running camp at a remote Christian-oriented, no-frills outdoorsy outpost called Camp Eagle.
Team Red White & Blue, a nonprofit devoted to improving the lives of veterans, sponsors the camp. The idea is to connect active and retired military personnel with civilians through shared physical and social activities. The three-day trail-running camp aimed to help veterans reintegrate into civilian life, and to give them skills and community to cope with challenges.
I was one of two dozen experienced trail/ultra runners invited to volunteer as a mentor. It all sounded great, and I was totally on board with the mission. But when I got there, I wondered, could I fit in?
Non-military, never-been-to-Texas, pro-gun-control, anti-beef, Religious-Right-decrying, Obama-defending me?
I couldn’t deny feelings of otherness and insecurity due to my lack of knowledge about the military and my relatively progressive politics. That, plus my painful realization that I haven’t ever put my life anywhere near the line for a greater cause.
I also felt intimidated by the credentials of the other ultrarunning mentors—remarkable athletes whose performances I follow—including Jason Schlarb, Meghan Arbogast, Matt Hart, Dominic Grossman, Joe Uhan, and Paul and Meredith Terranova. The accomplishments of the other mentors blew me away. I was eager to get to know them and learn from them, but could I keep up?
Four days later, I’m a little embarrassed to reveal those insecurities, because they melted away once we changed into running shorts and RWB shirts and hit the trails together.
Over the course of the long weekend, I found myself surrounded by—and accepted into—a group of funny, unpretentious, caring and tough people. Salt-of-the-earth, my dad would say.
The purpose and impact of the camp started to sink in Friday night at dinner when I sat next to a guy who maybe was approaching 30 but seemed young because of his blond surfer looks and tattoos. He told me, matter-of-factly, how he nearly lost himself to drugs and drinking after he finished his tour in Iraq. Running became part of his therapy, and now he dreams of making the podium at ultras.
After dinner, we donned headlamps and gathered for a nighttime four-mile run. I noticed a well-built man with a shaved head and tattoos—a career soldier, dad to three kids—who seemed vaguely familiar. We did the “do I know you?” thing. His name is Ryan Yedlinsky, and finally we realized we had carpooled to the start of the Gorge 100K in Oregon last March, thanks to his friendship with Western States 100 champ Pam Smith, who kindly offered me a ride. What a fluke, what a small world. No more fish-outta-water.
Then we ran into the night, all of us getting our footing on the rocky and cacti-strewn trails, ducking so we wouldn’t get decked by the branches of scraggly piñons.
On the trail and in the dining hall, I asked people where they’re from, what they did, whether and when they were deployed. I got to know folks from Florida, Texas, Virginia, Missouri, South Carolina and Nevada. Many served bravely overseas and diligently on bases. Several now work at boring-sounding desk jobs in flat cities, yearning to escape to the mountains for a good run.
At one point, I introduced myself to a woman named Isah who leapt toward me and said, “I gotta give you a hug!” because she read about me in the mentor profile booklet and liked some advice I shared there. She confessed to hating running, and she hugged me again when I said I did earlier in life, too, so we talked about how to make progress toward running.
“You’re probably hurting and hating it because you’re pushing too hard,” I told her. “Go slowly enough that it feels relaxed and manageable …. Never judge a run by the first mile. If you can get past 30 minutes, it’ll start to feel better.” She hugged me a third time!
The camp participants came with a wide range of running abilities, so we divided them into four groups. The chief leaders of our group were Katie DeSplinter, a top ultrarunner from Los Angeles, and Chris McWatters, an accomplished adventure racer who recently acquired the race outfit Tejas Trails. Mentors in our group, whom I ran alongside and got to know, included Nathan Leehman, owner of Ultra Running Company in North Carolina, and Nicole Studer, the 100-mile American trail record holder.
Get the picture? I got to run with many amazing runners and people! I felt so grateful to be out there.
Perhaps the most amazing person there—the one responsible for inviting me deep into the heart of Texas, and the leader of the camp—was champion ultrarunner Liza Howard. Liza (whom I interviewed for UltraRunnerPodcast) won the Leadville 100 this year, is the mom of two little kids, and a teacher of wilderness medicine. She’s an Army brat motivated to help veterans through Team RWB’s mission. She dons a giant squid hat when she talks to groups to make herself seem taller and to put everyone at ease. She’s one of the best public speakers I’ve witnessed, which is saying a lot.
She led two clinics—one on wilderness first aid, and one on blister prevention and altitude acclimation—that I learned tips from. I especially liked how she explained why snake bite kits and hydrogen peroxide do more harm than good, and how she got three volunteers to dress up and act as “friction,” “heat” and “moisture” to demonstrate how the three factors conspire to cause blisters.
I also learned a lot from Meredith Terranova’s clinic on nutrition and Alison Bryant’s clinic on dynamic stretching, reminding me that I always have more to learn as a runner and coach.
Liza scheduled an open-mic session in which we were encouraged to share stories and beliefs. Some of the toughest, fittest guys blinked away tears and struggled to control the quiver of emotion in their voice as they described losing a loved one or confronting their fears.
I went to Camp Eagle as a mentor to share what I know about trail running. I left having learned and received more than I taught or gave.
While the camp helped veterans deal with civilian life, it also helped me, a civilian, broaden my perspectives. The experience challenged some preconceived notions of what veterans are like, what military service is like and what red states like Texas are like. It deepened my respect for how enlisted men and women serve and make sacrifices for our country. It also made me feel better about America, warts and all, and made a small dent in my political cynicism and apathy—the byproducts of dismay that our country is so polarized and politically poisoned that we can’t get anything done and my kids’ futures seem fucked. I left with a flicker of optimism that we can bridge divides and fix what’s broken because of our common humanity and love for things like running, family and freedom.
Sadly, this trail-running camp won’t take place next year in quite the same venue or format because Team RWB plans to change the camp’s focus (I’m not sure why; maybe stories like this will prompt them to reconsider).
If you want a chance to run the trails around Camp Eagle, then register for the J&J Race and Trail Running Reunion September 24, 2016 (various distances from 10K to 100K), to honor recently retired race directors Joe and Joyce Prusaitis, who have done so much for the Texas ultrarunning community.
I’d like to stay in touch and stay involved. That’s why I came home and signed up to become a member of Team RWB’s San Francisco chapter.