I was a non-recruited senior from a small Iowa high school, walking on to the elite University of Colorado cross country team. I found myself rooming with my heroes, future Olympian Jorge Torres and his twin brother Ed, and future American record holder Dathan Ritzenhein. I was guided by the legend, Mark Wetmore, or simply "Wetmore," as the enigmatic coach was known on the team.
However, competing for Colorado was more challenging than I'd ever anticipated. The running, I found, was the easy part. I worked as hard as I could just to keep my place on the team.
The following is an excerpt from my new book An Honorable Run:
Mother Nature: An Unrelenting Beast
One unexpected challenge, on the way to a national championship, came in late March, courtesy of Mother Nature. An abominable snowwoman, she took her aggression out on Boulder in a pre-spring blizzard that clobbered the Front Range late one night. The violent storm forced the city to close icy Canyon Road, a rare occurrence that eliminated our only connection between the "Fight Club," the more-tame-than-it-sounds cabin where I lived with Jorge, Ed, and Dathan, and town.
Around eight-thirty the next morning, I woke to a dark house that felt like an ice box. The electricity lines were dead, knocked out by the snow's weight. An hour later, my roommates and I shuffled out of bed. Outside, we saw a solid field of thigh-high snow extending from the Fight Club's front door, engulfing the roundabout driveway and continuing down to Canyon Road 100 yards away. After dressing in every piece of winter-weather attire we owned, Dathan and I grabbed the only two shovels in the garage. Jorge and Ed settled on plastic rakes and we relentlessly dug for the next two and a half hours. Finally, sweating from the unexpected chore, Jorge pulled us together. "It looks pretty good. Now we can at least get a car out."
"Jorge, the road is closed," Ed told him. "Where are we going to drive?"
He had a point.
The next logical step would have been to build a fire in the fireplace and boil a pot of hot cocoa over the open flame. But, freakishly, we had more important plans than indulging in liquid chocolate, if that's even possible. We robotically changed into tights, long sleeves, waterproof vests, caps and gloves. On Wednesdays, we were scheduled to run fifteen percent of our weekly quota. I had recently been experimenting with 100 miles a week; that meant fifteen for me, as well as for the others. It was an aggressive workload, where we walked a fine line between injury and victory.
Since snow covered the dirt trails, we used the lifeless Canyon Road which had been partially cleared. It would have been one of the busiest roads in Boulder on a normal workday. We jogged over the wooden bridge above the creek and clicked our watches. One thought penetrated mind, "Run tough, when it's tough to run."
We cruised down the center of the road, atop the yellow lane-dividing line. It felt rebellious and freeing. Despite the massive orange snowplows that threatened to flatten us with each pass and the police roadblock set up at the bottom of the canyon, our Wednesday run into town proceeded smoothly. After forty-five minutes, we popped into our team's headquarters, Balch Fieldhouse. Colorado's closed campus was devoid of life, yet we all knew at least one person would be there in his office, our leader: Coach Wetmore.
Mark also lived up Boulder Canyon, but had driven down before the police erected their roadblock. Seemingly indifferent to the weather, he penned the day's assignments as if the sun shone and all was as usual. Almost the entire team would show up two hours later for practice, wearing the same "Snow? What snow?" attitude as Wetmore. By the time we ran to his office, we had completed half of our workout, so he waived our attendance at practice and sent us back home, knowing we'd complete our remaining seven and a half miles along the way. With vests, tights, and shoes covered in melting snow, our small group headed back into the storm. After we had convinced the police that they had to let us past their barricade because "we live in the canyon!" and "yes, we know cars aren't allowed up the road. That's why we're going to run!" we started the last push.
We reached the Fight Club and continued past the ninety-five-minute mark, ultimately clocking in at two hours, about eighteen grueling miles. The extra distance convinced us that no one in the world could be working harder than we were at that moment. But we might as well have kept going, we thought, because without electricity or running water, we didn't have much waiting for us back at the Fight Club. We did our best to improvise. That night, Jorge, Ed, Dathan, and I cooked lasagna on the grill, melted snow for drinking water, and skipped showers. As darkness fell, we covered ourselves in layers of blankets, lit a cluster of candles, and listened to the Iraq War coverage on a battery-powered radio.
To order your copy of An Honorable Run, go to www.anhonorablerun.com
A portion of the book's proceeds will benefit the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (www.pancan.org), an organization that advances research, supports patients and creates hope for anyone affected by pancreatic cancer. More information can be found at www.anhonorablerun.com.