Nearly five months later and in the middle of Lent, I am ready to tell my story. On November 19th in 2014, I set out on what I thought would be an epic run. I enjoy running and run races of 100+ miles so for me to use “epic” in a description, it does not come flippantly. So please allow me to humbly tell my story.
The character, me, is a family man with a continual desire to grow his Faith and a conviction to help others. This commitment to make a difference in the world had accelerated to such a pace that maintaining my perspective on Faith and Family were the only areas I was able to preserve, based on a professional opportunities I had chosen in the past two years. Then abruptly I was given a great gift to hit the reset button with my family, invest more time with my Faith, and plot a new path professionally while enjoying a supportive transition.
This personal and professional time provided a unique opportunity for me to seek clarity. The source of this clarity was from myself (not always a reliable source) and more importantly from God. The gift of running has taught me that the miles/time on my feet distills my thoughts and welcomes God into all of my being in a way that I cannot gain at any other time.
I sought my clarity in the form of a solo run on The Devils Path located in the Catskill Mountains in New York. The Devils Path is known as the toughest backpacking trail in the Eastern United States and that is without winter temperatures and ice. Usually people take 2.5-3.5 days of hiking backpacking to go the length of the path one way, 25 miles. I conceived running an out and back would be a great way to get some “clarity” on the new direction my life was taking.
I headed into the Catskills to take a run on what I envisioned as my journey in the desert, not to test God but to find some answers. Solo runs are interesting and involve a fully different mindset depending on distance, location, and elements. Distance, I planned to run 25 miles out and 25 miles back, unfortunately there is only one roadway crossing at mile 17, so not a lot of alternate plans. Location, although lots of people like the Catskill Mountains, during my journey I saw 3 people, so not well-traveled at that time. Elements, this was the game changer as the warmest temp was 18 degrees without wind chill and the summits were low single digits with 25 mph winds resulting in a near -20 degrees real feel.
Prior to heading on my journey, I discussed my clear route, planning, emergency supplies, emergency contact numbers, and full preparation with knowledgeable runners/survivalists. I had the appropriate “kit” which included an emergency thermal blanket, nourishment, water filtering device, first aid, lights, and a zip lock bag containing scripture from Mathew 4, The Temptation of Jesus. The scripture was intentional as I believed I would be ‘tempted’ on my run or be ‘attended,” after all that is why I headed out to gain that clarity.
Several days before heading to New York, I actually visited my Pastor recognizing that my effort was going to be a “bit sketchy” going solo and I was looking for any Spiritual Enlightenment and Protection I could find. The phrase “Minimal protection, maximum support” is used frequently in our church; I was certainly looking for the maximal protection should anything go wrong.
The next segment describing my journey is not for the faint of heart. I left Doylestown around 4 am drove to the Catskills and hosting a Spiritual Leadership call that was very motivating. The call concluded and I arrived at the trail head around 8:30 am, let my loved ones know I was starting and then headed out to The Devils Path. The temperatures were cold at the beginning, never really warmed up, and conditions got worse the higher up the mountains I climbed. I noticed snow at lower elevations transitioning to ice and snow at higher elevations each time I summited one of the many mountains along the trail. I came to realize the mountains had over an inch of rain in the preceding days which all seemed to flash freeze on the trails. Remember that distinction of “hardest backpacking trail east of the Mississippi” well it gained an entirely new status when the trails became ice chutes and the routine 15-25 feet of boulder scrambling up and down became ice climbing for a trail runner (and over half of my time on the trail was by head lamp). I progressed well throughout the day just realizing that the temps were colder, the wind was stronger, the conditions were worse, and I was moving slower than I thought. Despite the challenges this was a remarkably great experience, a beautiful day, and an ideal place for a clarifying experience. I waited for “clarity” moments, but they did not seem to come.
Around 4:00 pm the sun was starting to drop and I could already feel the temps going down significantly as the wind picked up. I had routinely made my check in calls with those keeping tabs on my progress but had trouble maintaining activation of my phone as it would shut off after 30 seconds due to the cold. My fueling using Compete, Gu’s, granola, and other snacks was sufficient yet my water supply was dwindling. I packed a filtering device that had been previously used with great success. Somehow it narrowly escaped my mind that filtering nearly frozen water, through a device that is exposed to -15 degree temps would immediately freeze.
My full intension was to get to the end of the 25 mile trail and then turn around and come back. Those that know me, would say that when I set my mind to accomplishing something, I generally see it through. Around 5 pm it was nearly dark, I tried my filter device again-it froze, I had not reached the end, phone did not grab signal, and in less than a 10 second deliberation I turned around and headed back.
The return was just as adventurous, a bit colder, in the dark, and with the knowledge of a limited reserve of water. I stopped once on the way back for another attempt at the water which involved deviating off the path 100 yards at night down to a cascading creek/waterfall (never recommended). After nearly 15 minutes with hands out of gloves, I had a small amount of water to continue on. Ultimately I knew I could melt the snow unfiltered and would be fine, yet that notion was just a little less than ideal. And just to let you know that when running outside in single digit temps with lower wind chills, in the dark, for what would become an 18 hour solo run>the brain is not chock full of optimal thinking.
Arriving back to the car just after 3 am, I gathered myself together and drove back to Doylestown. Initially, I had some level of disappointment due to the absence of a grand epiphany. Hence, I have waited for months to draft my understanding. Given the timing with Lent, I started to recognize more and more similarities. “40” is a prominent number in the Bible and actually I ran 40 miles on that journey. In retrospect, I was consistently tempted, almost every step. Do something reckless, push past that critical moment at 5:00 just to stretch for a selfish goal, “give in” to the considerable danger that could be expected from the entirety of the trip causing me to lose the needed confidence to safely proceed, and the list goes on and on………….
What I realize now is that God was with me then, throughout the 18 hours, like he has been with me during my entire life. When I clearly needed to turn around, there was no hesitation>which was not my thinking. When I kept looking for a huge sign of God’s presence, he supported my myopic focus on just taking the next right step. When I prepared for this trip, I sought counsel and took all that I needed; which is what I hope as I am preparing for the Eternal Life. When I look back at the potential peril on that trail that was etched into my memory, it remains difficult to describe that night; however, I can now easily parallel my running experience with the dangers that each of us faces in our everyday life of distractions and instant gratification.
I did not set out to test God, nor would I recommend such. I did seek to find both answers and clarity, which did not arrive in the form of a burning bush. My run was another way for me to underscore the need to pray for “Patience, Awareness, Humility, and to remain Teachable.” Ultimately I realized that God showed up for me subtly and consistently every step of the way, that is how, where He has been throughout my life.
GUEST BLOGGER: I hope you enjoyed this amazing story from my good friend, mentor, coach, and spiritual brother, Bobby “Goat” who is the biggest influence on my running Ultra’s. He has an impressive running resume that includes Mohican, BigHorn, Zion 100, UTMB and several 50’s. Please leave any comments or questions for The Goat below.