Twelve of us wander befuddled around an ivory tile floor filled with black scuff marks and smudges of gray dirt. Fluorescent lights running in paneled rows along the ceiling cast a zinging, highest-of-energies glow that is perhaps the antithesis of the time of day and our moods. As for me, I have been traveling – 45 hours on five airplane flights from a trail race on the other side of the world and, now, amongst this tribe of athletes road-tripping into Texas’ Hill Country for a weekend at the Trail Running Camp on the Nueces – and all I can think about is beer. I stand in front of the cooler as Jonathan Silk walks by. We exchange nervous, I-just-met-you smiles and strike up light conversation about the late, confusing hour and our camp expectations.
If the scene in which we’re chatting is a perfectly spinning (however unusual) record producing melodic sound, then the next thing Jon says is like the eardrum-rasping racket of someone slamming their hand down to stop the rotation. The Army Major and West Point faculty member was injured during a 2004 combat situation in Iraq, “I was hit in the chest by a rocket-propelled grenade that failed to detonate. This damaged the mitral valve of my heart. I now have a carbon valve that ticks when I run. You’ll hear it this weekend.”
I have no idea how to respond to this torrent of information. My response is asinine and I know it, “We share something in common. I have mitral valve prolapse.” Jon is obviously adept at navigating awkward social moments instigated by people like me in response to his injury. He gives me a warm smile and responds, “Wow, really? Sometimes I think the warmest hearts are the ones that don’t tick right.”
My own strangely beating heart bursts into a million pieces.
Saturday, November 10, 8 am; the Camp Eagle cafeteria
I enter the cafeteria of Camp Eagle, a private camp way the heck out here in Rocksprings, Texas that’s hosting this running camp, just in time to see ultrarunner Liza Howard wrangle us active military members, veterans, civilians, and elite runners into silent, welcoming submission. Liza is so bad ass in her running abilities and overall human being-ness that I forget she is miniature. I’ll bet she barely squeaks out five feet in height and 100 pounds in mass, but she’s got a warm smile and a booming voice. Our posse of 150, midway through a post-run breakfast frenzy, is captivated.
“Welcome to the first-ever, and we hope first-annual trail running camp with Team Red, White & Blue!” Well, I presume she finishes her sentence with the word ‘Blue,’ but a raucous round of applause and cheers gulps the word right up. When the group settles, she continues, “For the next three days, we’ve got running, skills, drills – even a race – and a lot more of this food for you.” We cheer again, loud enough that the window I’m standing next to is rattling.
Before I settle into my own breakfast, I survey the room. I see Alison and Jason Bryant, Liza’s cohorts in organizational crime for this camp. They are talking with a man who has a chunk of hair missing on the side-back of his head, and I wonder if it is a healed war injury. I spot Jonathan Silk, who has clearly captured the attention of about half his table. At the next table over is Marshall Ulrich, the famed (and toenail-less) adventurer who will deliver tonight’s keynote presentation, in what looks like a whisper-y conversation with a couple of women. In the far corner, I see Borat. I quadruple-take him, realizing it is perpetual goofball Dominic Grossman and his new, furry mustache. I notice all the women, so many women, far more women than I expect at a camp with a military emphasis.
This little room is vibrating with energy. Liza’s welcome, the run that preceded breakfast, the coffee that everyone’s drinking, the stories, the laughter, the collection of experiences that no one really needs to speak about for all of us to feel: camp has barely started but it’s lifting us all up. I fill my plate with food, find an empty spot at a table, and get ready for what is already a wild ride.
Saturday, November 10, 4:56 pm; a rocky hilltop
I have joined Group D, one of the four groups into which all camp participants have been divided, for today’s final trail run. The air is warm, and a humid breeze stuffs itself inside of my shirt. We’ve come to a brief, sticky rest at the top of one hill and the bottom of another. I’m sweating so much that it is condensing on the lens of the camera in my hand. Because of this, every photo I take for the next half hour will look like the product of a fantastic LSD trip.
One of the group’s leaders, Dominic Grossman, proposes a sprint race to the top of the next hill. He flashes a sly grin and takes off before we can agree or disagree. Rocks squeak underneath our feet as we all turn and chase. We huff, grunt, and heave our way up this short, steep jeep road composed of chalky rocks the color of vanilla-cake frosting. The sunset sprays a soft, coral-colored glow from over our left shoulders.
I arrive to the top, and someone gives me a high five so hard that it stings. The energy of this group is burly, masculine, intense. But as I look at everyone’s faces, they harbor warm, way-to-go smiles made even softer by the sun’s final light. It’s a dichotomy, I think, but this is as far as I get with my thoughts because the group is already hooting and whooping in a full sprint downhill.
Sunday, November 11, 5 pm; the obstacle course mud pit
I am the course marshal/documenter of flying shloop at the obstacle course’s mud put. This is a race, as Liza, Alison, and Jason will later endow awards to the speediest of the men and women flying past me. Participants are ducking, rolling, swimming, swinging, wading, and mostly laughing their way toward the finish line, which is another two miles and many more obstacles past me.
I am seeing it all here. One of the lead men loses his shoe in the mud and water. Without hesitation, he lowers is whole body into the gook and goes fishing. Moments later, he’s got it back on and is sprinting off. Another man comes to a full stop on the far side and shouts, “How deep is it?” In answer, I hold my hand up to just above my knees, hoping he understands it isn’t deep enough to dive. A couple runners take a pass – this was declared legal for some racers before the start – and run around the mud pit. They tease the muddy runners, and it’s me that laughs this time because they don’t know what’s ahead: a long, deep wade in the Nueces River, a much more challenging obstacle than this mud.
Eric Browy comes trotting toward the mud pit. I’ve only caught bits and pieces of his story so far, but he’s retired from the Army. He lost his lower right leg and injured the heck out of his left foot during a violent, enemy altercation while in Army service abroad. He now runs with a prosthesis. We’ve been at camp for two days and I’ve yet to see this guy not smiling.
Wouldn’t you know it, he’s got a fat grin on his face as he drops himself down the embankment and into the water. He isn’t fast as he crosses, and he has to use his hands to crawl out of the pit, but he’s laughing the entire time. The whole scene makes my heart leap into my throat. Runners are still zinging past me, and I am taking their photos, and hollering for them as loud as I can. But behind the safety of my sunglasses, tears roll down my cheeks.
As I watch Eric and everyone else tackle the mud, it dawns on me that these military members are as close to fearless as our species probably has. They join the military knowing almost nothing about what the journey of doing so will involve, and knowing full well it might land them in a live-or-die situation. This might seem painfully obvious to anyone who is or has been in the military, or to someone who works in law enforcement, or to a loved one of these aforementioned demographics. But, me, well, I’m learning a lesson right now: these are the bravest people I have ever met.
[Note: For more photos of the camp, check out iRunFar's Facebook Album from it.]
2013 Trail Running Camp on the Nueces with Team Red, White & Blue
It’s going to happen on Veteran’s Day weekend, November 8-11, next year! And you (Read: anyone!) can join in. Stay tuned to Liza Howard’s website for details as they evolve.