Thanks to some inspiration from my buddy Ian Mackay and his epic summer ride, I’ve been taking to the trails near my house on a semi regular basis. Granted, I don’t average 30+ miles a day like that crazy hippie, but a few miles a week helps me get some fresh air and run Hank’s brain into something that vaguely resembles focus. We’ve had a decent run of sunny but crisp days to begin the autumn season up in the Pacific Northwest that not only allowed me to log a few extra miles before the weather officially turns for the winter, but also managed to trigger a bit of nostalgia.
The sight, smell and sound of the fallen leaves crunching under my wheels combined with the gentle breeze nipping at my cheeks takes me back a decade or so to early morning runs in Ellensburg with the wrestling team. I remember hating those runs when I first got into college. Actually, I just hated running period.
In high school, I made it through exactly one day of turnouts for the Auburn Riverside high school cross-country team. The only reason I even turned out was at the insistence (read: persistent, borderline harassment) of the head coach, Bill Sumner, who happened to teach my architecture/computer-aided-design classes. He would call super early in the morning towards the end of summer break barking some nonsense about getting in shape for wrestling season, to which I would usually hang up, roll over and go back to sleep.
He finally wore me down enough to say yes my senior year, so I convinced Unel Hampton, my good friend and practice partner, to come with me for the first day of tryouts. I mean, it’s just running, how hard could it be? Two miles later, I couldn’t feel my legs and Unel was dry heaving in the flower beds outside Leisure Manor mobile home park, while all the tall skinny bastards in their goofy short shorts were just getting warmed up, laughing at us as they continued on for who knows how much further. Our day was over, theirs was just beginning, and they could have it. I’d leave cross-country to the bird-legged.
Flash forward a calendar year and you can imagine my surprise when I show up as a freshman walk-on for the wrestling team, and the first three weeks of practice consisted of nothing but running; somewhere between 3 and 8 miles on the road each morning, wind sprints on the football field and buddy-carries up the stadium bleachers in the afternoons, and a 4 mile scramble up and down Manastash Ridge every Saturday morning. After the first week my legs felt like Jell-O and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was all some big cosmic joke, that I had somehow turned out for cross-country by mistake. You can see me on the right in a white hat in the photo above, stretching before one of those jaunts up The Ridge.
Fortunately we got on the mats a few weeks later and I learned the two-part method behind head coach Kevin Pine’s madness of three weeks with nothing but running. The first was simple attrition. The overwhelming mileage managed to weed out anyone not serious about wrestling at the next level, cutting the freshman turnout from the high teens to half a dozen. The second was that it was only the beginning. Along with afternoon practices, we continued 6 AM morning runs for the near entire six-months of the season because you need the roadwork to develop your legs for the virtual street fight a seven minute college match can be.
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point over my five year stint as a Wildcat, I grew to appreciate those runs. They gave me a depth of stamina and mental fortitude that served me well, especially the last couple of years when I became a leader in the wrestling room and a success on the mat. So it was only natural that they became one of the things I missed most after my injury.
It wasn’t just the void of physical sensations like the way my feet ached from pounding the pavement past acres and acres of Ellensburg farmland or the way the frigid morning air stung deep down in my lungs as I chased All-American teammates like Cole Denison and Shaine Jamie back towards Nicholson Pavilion. What was infinitely more painful was the idea that I had lost that intense sense of camaraderie built by testing your limits with your closest friends. It wasn’t until I found myself whizzing past acres of farmland on the Olympic Discovery Trail with Ian last Sunday that I noticed those long dormant feelings bubble to the surface.
As much as I like to rib him about being a pot-smoking, birdwatching hippie, the reality is that he, his family and many of his support crew all rank near the top of my list of favorite people on the planet. We met at a pivotal point in my journey a little over four years ago, as I was beginning to emerge from under the deep, dark shroud of denial and depression that swallowed almost a decade of my life. We talked about assistive technology that day, and he told me I was an idiot for not using an adaptive mouse, to which I had no choice but to agree after I got a chance to try one out.
Over the years, our bond has gone far beyond talk of computer and wheelchair parts. Along with a select handful of men living with high-level spinal cord injuries affectionately known as the Quad Squad, we have leaned on each other while grappling with our emotions and disobedient bodies, and now find ourselves becoming strong advocates for our community. While Ian is making substantial headway in his quest for accessible trails in the Pacific Northwest (you can follow along here), I’m heading down to Las Vegas for another advocacy conference with United Spinal.
My crew and I fly out tomorrow at 9:45 AM and, even though I have a decent record with Alaska Airlines, I won’t lie and pretend this summer’s chaotic trip isn’t renting space in my head. But then I think about that miserable run with Unel, and how it didn’t stop me from becoming a runner after all. My days as a paralyzed traveler may have had a rocky start and I’m sure there will be more rough times going forward, but I can’t let that deter me from taking things to the next level.
Wish us luck!