Back in 2012, when Chris came out for the Leadville Heavy Half Marathon/ Copper Mountain Half Marathon double race weekend, I was in quite good shape and was in high spirits for the races. But, come that first race morning in Leadville I found that my stomach wasn’t great and I felt terrible. And that was too bad, because secretly, on the inside, my competitive nature had risen up and I was looking forward to showing my flat-lander friend how we do things here in the mountains.
Instead, I got to experience Chris’s encouragement, as we trudged up the first hill, me sucking wind and feeling nauseous while he hiked up the hill in front of me. Backwards.
So, that was awesome.
I eventually shooed him off away from me and I ended up finishing quite a ways behind him in that race, having never turned it around and feeling terrible all day.
Then, the next day at Copper Mountain, I almost caught him, but he saw me on a little out and back section of the course and I told him I was coming for him, but I couldn’t run him down. Dammit.
Chris has this capacity for pain tolerance, coupled with this strange, inner rage monster that just makes him go nuts when the starting gun is fired or a game is started. I guess that’s part of what his friends love about him. Or something.
While he was away in Afghanistan, as I’d shared, things would go silent and worry would creep in. But, eventually, he’d text or send a Facebook message, and we continued our dreaming about the Leadville Marathon and the Trail 100.
Chris had made it back to the states in the fall of 2013 safely. But even still, those who come home safely still carry heavy emotional and spiritual loads, so it was incredibly encouraging to be scheming on epic adventures together again.
Training for me went well, except for a bit knee wonkiness. Chris was progressing well, too, until Uncle Sam called for another extended stay in the desert. At least this time it was only for maneuvers in the US Southwest. Even still, the heat and exhaustion and the long, long hours took their toll and when I picked Chris up at the airport a few days before the Leadville marathon, it was clear he was weary.
His weariness became even more apparent as we went out for a quick jaunt around Green Mountain as our last run before the marathon. I was excited to show him “my” mountain, and the cairns where I had carried so many prayers for he and his men. As we made our way up the hill we talked some, but I could tell it was taxing him a bit. Normally, I have trouble keeping up with him, but now it was reversed. On top, we stopped for pics and to have a look around at the expansive views of Denver and the foothills. It was such a simple, profound moment… to have my friend home, safe and there on the hill with me. A living, breathing answer to prayer.
We headed up to Leadville that night, to spend a couple of days acclimatizing and hanging and catching up. Melanie and a whole host of other friends who were running either the marathon or the heavy half made their way up the hill and then race morning dawned glorious.
We all agreed to go at our own paces that day, and we spread out a bit, early on. But, in a quirk, I found myself with Chris and Joey (Bearss, my running bromance for the summer of 2014) as we began making our way up the second long climb of the day around mile 3 or so. As we went, Chris unfolded the tale of a long and harrowing battle that he and his men experienced almost exactly one year previous. It was absolutely staggering to hear such a tale. Of course, you know that soldiers face danger, but to hear it so directly, from someone so close… It’s sobering and it is awful.
But, in hindsight, it seems like it was good for him to share, like in some small way the telling of the tale helped spread the weight of the experience out, even if just the tiniest bit. And so we barely replied, we just listened as he spoke of bullets striking at his feet and whistling near his head.
After wrapping up his story, it was clear that Chris’s weariness was holding him back a bit, so with his blessing I went on ahead. I saw him again near the top of Mosquito Pass. I had made the turn and was headed back down, and he was still on his way up, battling all 13,186 feet of the pass.
The story of why this race had meant so much to him that day.
He spoke of the arrangements that have to be made when a soldier heads off to war.
He told how had left instructions with his brother, that if he were killed, he wanted me to get his ashes.
That he wanted me to bring those ashes up to Mosquito Pass and spread them there, where we had shared such simple, glorious adventures.
And yet, here he was. Through battles and dangers and heat and turmoil in war and mountains half a world away, he’d made it.
Today was his day to climb that hill, himself.
3 years previous, we had joked and laughed that the mountain was trying to kill us, that we’d prevailed and that we were “Not Dead Yet.”
But there on that day, and from now on, “Not Dead Yet” means something so much more…