Even before finishing the TRT 100, I struggled with how to write the race report describing it. I knew it was going to be a monumental undertaking, a culmination of years and experiences so close to my heart that I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t been through them. I’m familiar with the standard race report format—the data, the clothes/shoes, and the diarrhea. There’s a lot to love about that style of report—I mean, seriously, have you seen my pace charts?—but I wanted to do something different this time. In a similar vein to Chris Perillo and his epic States account, I want to tell a story, one that for me includes my journey to the TRT 100—what got me there and what kept me going for one hundred miles. I want to share my “why.”
For obvious reasons, the question of “why” has come up a lot since signing up for the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run, my first 100-mile race. My number-one-ultra-running fan, my mother, has asked me this question on numerous occasions and in varying formats. How do I do it? What keeps me going? A woman in my Pilates class seemed downright offended by the idea of running 100 miles. “I can’t think of one reason why anyone would want to do that,” she exclaimed with disgust. I told her I could think of one hundred reasons.
I had a plan for race day to come up with those 100 reasons while I was running. I couldn’t very well bring pen and paper in my ultra vest—just ask Chaz, there was no room for such luxuries—so I imagined dictating them to my Australian-accented assistant, Siri. I never got around to making the list—my mind was on other things, mostly on remaining upright and moving in a forward direction—but the inspiration was still there.
So, why did I do it? Why do any of us in this crazy sport do it? Why do we put our bodies through the physical and mental suffering required to prepare, train for, and run a 100-mile race? For me, this was my quest for the holy grail I had been looking for. I wanted to put myself through what Chris had experienced at Western States. I wanted to go through that pain and suffering, that struggle, and come out on the other side. I saw Chris come into the Foresthill aid station that day, hours after his estimated time, and he was simply defeated—so much so that I had to walk away, because he needed positive energy, and I had a hard time giving that to a friend who was obviously in so much pain.
Facing the physical challenge was one of my reasons, but it wasn’t my only reason. My race report isn’t a story of what did or did not get me to the finish line of the TRT 100; it’s the story of what got me to the start. To tell you that story, I have to take you back several years and through some of the darkest—and most defining—moments of my life. I’d like to think I came up with the quote, “I don’t run away from my problems, I run with them.” Maybe I did? Either way, it fits the bill for me and this story.
It was March 1st, 2013, when I was on my way home from work and I got the call that my little brother, Ruairi, had passed away in a surfing accident in Port Macquarie, Australia. I can’t recall the moments shortly after the phone fell out of my hand and I struggled to pull off one of the busiest commuting highways in the country, but they were painful. That pain has never left me, and is with me in every breath I take, every mile on the trail, and every waking moment. Ruairi lived a unique life, an unconventional life, and there is no doubt he lived it to the fullest.
Three months before the accident, my wife, Tara, and I, along with some of our closest friends, were in Port Macquarie visiting Ruairi for the first time. If you’ve ever been up the eastern coast of the land down under, you will know why Ruairi chose it as his home. He lived in a small flat on the beach with his dog, Cali, a border collie named after the state Ruairi was born in. They would get up early every morning and go surfing, only stopping to eat, have a few beers, and relax in his hammock, thinking about the next time he would surf. Ruairi was living the dream.
Besides his passion for life, Ruairi was also passionate about working with autistic children. It was a career that started in San Francisco and brought him first to Dubai, then to Manchester England, and eventually to Port Macquarie, Australia, where he worked with a boy named Daniel. Ruairi and Daniel had a very unique relationship, one only they understood. Daniel had little-to-no communication skills, but Ruairi heard every word Daniel never spoke. There are video recordings of Ruairi’s sessions with Daniel, and I’m told it’s truly remarkable to see the connection these two had, a deeper connection than even Daniel’s mother had with her own child. I am not sure if I can ever bring myself to watch these videos. The idea of seeing my brother on video is still too painful, and even though his interactions with Daniel were nothing short of a miracle and should be watched by all, I simply can’t do it. Maybe some day.
I’ll always remember sitting with Ruairi at a bar in Byron Bay and asking him,“Why? Why would you move as far away from your family as possible?” His answer was so quick and short it might have been insulting to some people, or to a brother who had to spend a couple thousands dollars just to come see his best friend, but the words have stuck with me to this day, and they define the path that I am on. He said simply, “Because, I am happy!”
Rewind three years before that day in the hot and humid Australian bar with Ruairi to when Tara and I were fully immersed in planning our wedding, and I experienced my first panic attack. I was still working full-time at my desk job back then, and I’d been burning the candle at both ends for a long time. I worked too many hours, ate unhealthy and irregular meals, and hated my job. The panic attack started with too much coffee and too little food, a sleepless night, and racing thoughts so gruesome you wouldn’t find them in the darkest slasher film. I had no idea what was happening to me that night, only that I couldn’t breathe, and my heart was beating so fast and loud I thought surely the neighbors would hear it. To this day, this has been the single most terrifying, yet memorable and meaningful, moment of my life.
That fateful night resulted in countless other lesser and even bigger panic attacks over the course of the next three years. I spent a good portion of that time in talk therapy, sometimes paying hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket to be seen multiple times a week. The first year was the roughest, which saw me skipping work, and taking multiple trips to the hospital with some doctors talking about suicide watch. At best I would get an average of 4-10 hours of sleep per week. I felt like I was one of those characters in a Freddy Kruger movie, doing whatever it took to stay awake, because the second I would lay down for bed, the horrors would come. To be honest, I would welcome that man with a metal claw and his black and red-striped sweater, because I believed that what awaited me was far worse.
I was broken, and the construction engineer inside me knew how to fix things that were broken, but how do you fix your mind? I struggled for years, hoping a doctor or therapist could wave a magic wand or put me in a trance to forget what I had experienced. The only spells they offered were in the form of pills, which I was told, “This is the only way! These will help you.” I refused to take them, but then again I am nervous just taking Advil. Ask Julia Millon, who tried to get me to take some at mile 80 during TRT, and I demanded advice from several other medical staff before taking one several hours later.
There was no quick fix for my affliction, if there was any at all. While I have developed the necessary tools and have become a mind ninja like Leonardo DeCaprio in the movie Inception, my anxiety and panic attacks still get the best of me every now and then. Although I am much more knowledgeable of the process my body goes through during a panic attack, they are no less scary. My perception of them has changed, knowing I am unable to control my thoughts, but I can control whether I choose to act on them. As dreadful as this time was in my life, if I was given the choice to live through it again, I would. I have grown, and I’ve learned too much about myself and who I am to give that up for something as simple as fear.
Shift forward again to December, 2014, one year after we lost Ruairi, when Tara and I were spending our first winter in Tahoe. We had just moved into a rental in Kings Beach. It was our fresh start to a new life, an unconventional life, one inspired by Ruairi. We had dual sinks in the bathroom, a his and hers, a first for us, and it made brushing teeth together as efficient as possible. During one of these highly economic tooth-brushing sessions, Tara pointed at my neck and asked, “What is that bump?” I told her jokingly it was my Adam’s Apple, thinking that I had noticed it looking a little odd in the past year, and that maybe it’d even grown a bit. We agreed I should probably get it checked out, especially since I already had a physical scheduled, the last part of an on-boarding process for my new career as a ski bum.
I can’t say that fear was one of the emotions I experienced when we found out that my Adams’s Apple was actually a softball-sized tumor attached to my right thyroid. Ironically, there was a moment of relief and, strangely, determination. I was definitely scared—this was the big “C” we were talking about, and it was included in the same sentence as “me.” That shit is beyond scary. Three months passed between my physical in December and the biopsy confirming it was cancer in March. It was a long and frustrating three months, full of waiting, multiple trips to various doctors in Tahoe and at UCSF, needles, ultrasounds, lab tests, and about a million questions. There were some good and much-needed tears shed that could have filled our parched California reservoirs, too. There are about seven different types of Thyroid cancer, ranging from the most aggressive and fatal of all cancers to the least aggressive with a 98% cure rate. We still didn’t know where I was on that spectrum.
On May 8th, 2015, I had my first surgery ever to remove the tumor, or “my alien,” which seemed a more appropriate term for it. After spending a night in the hospital, Tara and I woke up with news that the surgery was successful, and even better, that the tumor was completely encapsulated, limiting the cancer to my right Thyroid. About a week into recovery, it was determined that I had the least aggressive form of Thyroid cancer. My treatment plan would include checkups every three to six months, plus a little pill I have to take every morning for the remainder of my life. I am happy to say that every checkup since the surgery has been exceptional, and that I can now move to a yearly checkup. After another three years of the same results, I’ll be considered cancer free.
Kane Cullimore, my good friend and eligible trail bachelor—and a huge reason why I finished the TRT 100—told me recently over dinner, “You have to have a reason.” He was talking about the “why,” and he’s right. Every one of us out there on the trail has a reason why we’re running. For me, these three moments in my life encompass my “why.” These experiences have forever changed me and made me who I am today, and I’m grateful for that. I found life in death, strength in fear, and resilience in adversity.
Much like ultra-running, I could have given up or DNF’d when things got rough in any of these situations, and the TRT was no exception. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we don’t toe the line at a 100-mile race because it’s easy; we do it because it’s hard. We do it for the challenge, and for the opportunity to push ourselves beyond known limits and into the realm of impossible.
More people than I can mention contributed to my success at the TRT 100, but I would like to acknowledge a few who made the extra sacrifice so I could pursue this goal. Julia Millon, my crew chief, Dan Baxley, and Kane Cullimore my two pacers. My mother, Kathy DeConcini, and Tara, my wife, for additional crew support (and race report editing). Chaz Sheya, Abbey Drake, and Lesley Dellamonica for the extra help at mile 50. Spike Wimmer for the extra medical attention at mile 80. The Silver State Striders and the Tunnel Creek aid station for the special attention given to a friend, and last but not least, Peter Fain, my running coach.