Starting on March 6, 2020, I did not get a full night’s sleep for about 45 nights. Without exception, I had nightmares and woke up around 3 AM each night, unable to fall back asleep because my nervous system had sounded the alarms. It sounds like something out of a novel from a bad writer. Life generally has more variance than the same thing happening for 45 nights in a row, but it was my reality, my brain trying to process my life at that point.
The time period that preceded those nightmares featured months of high stress and alcohol abuse, culminating in an intoxicated night where I lost my temper over perceived infidelity, went into someone’s house, and shouted at them at 4 AM before the police were called. That set off a firestorm: legal troubles, university conduct issues, rumors that swirled around my law school, lost friends, and a ton of judgment on my character. On a daily basis, I cycled through a confusing mix of shame, guilt, remorse, embarrassment, defiance, anger, grief, and disbelief. Two months from graduating law school, I went from being optimistic about a post-graduate position to believing my legal career was dead on arrival, especially considering this latest incident was not the first. Rather, it was the last of a pattern of incidents involving alcohol dating all the way back to my early 20s, a span of 10 years, and a problem that got out of control during law school.
This was also not the first time life had been rough, but it did feel like it might be the last. I figured out a plan that was feasible even though it was not something I wanted to do. Overall, I am blessed with amazing family and friends that I never want to harm, and during this time period, there was no shortage of family and friends who supported me immensely. On a day-to-day basis though, I was suffering and did not know how to find relief. On March 23, 2020, I sat on a dock by a lake near my father’s house. I was deciding whether it was time, and the best answer I could come up with was “not yet.” I didn’t know if things would change, if I was capable of overcoming the issues that had haunted me for years. I just knew the current chapter had to end one way or another, and I decided to start the next chapter just to see if the story was redundant. Sometimes, there is no choice but to face adversity for whatever external reason. For me, I was facing adversity that I had brought on myself. I was dealing with a ton of external judgment of who I was as a person while simultaneously wondering if they were right.
One thing I learned in counseling is that alcohol abuse is usually a byproduct of other issues. For me, alcohol had been in my life since high school as a response to stress. I grew up in an abusive household, and I discovered alcohol as an unhealthy way to cope with those difficult feelings, to find relief from the fear and anxiety that I felt during my home life. As I grew older, alcohol remained a response to other stressful situations, a way to temporarily feel better when I didn’t know how else to deal with whatever situation I was facing. That mix became a recipe for disaster. When I drank in response to stress, while maybe the stress became numb, the issue itself certainly wasn’t fixed. I was just dealing with it while drunk, with drunk decision-making and drunk perception. As a result, I woke up too many times the next morning, after a night where the goal was to get away from problems, knowing I created more.
Thus, fixing my alcohol problem was more so taking on a life problem. How do I address the issues that were causing my reasons for drinking in the first place? Well, a big part of the answer was therapy. Anyone who stigmatizes therapy needs to check themselves. Therapy is problem-solving, and I recommend it. Everyone is responsible for their actions as an adult, but trauma has a way of manifesting itself in one form or another until it’s healed. The lesson of Lion King was not hakuna matata. Simba had to go back to face his past. I had to do the same. Aside from all that though, the other biggest thing I did was to start running, a lot.
I had learned a little bit about ultramarathons the year prior, in 2019. I watched a Barkley Marathons documentary, some Billy Yang films, How to Run 100 Miles by Brendan Leonard and Jayson Sime. All of that was fascinating to me, but it was still a foreign concept until I heard the story of some particular ultrarunners that made the sport relatable in March of 2020. There seemed to be quite a few who found ultrarunning after their own struggles with any number of things: alcohol, drugs, trauma, disorders, whatever. That made sense to me, and the sport stopped feeling foreign. Here were these humans who had some underlying fire that was manifesting itself in a destructive habit, and they figured out how to channel that fire into a productive habit, an outlet. Here I was in crisis, with a mind that literally felt like it was on fire at times, and maybe this was an outlet. Maybe that was a blueprint for change, and maybe my story was not redundant.
For a while, running was the only time I felt ok. It gave me something to be proud of, something that was an objective improvement, a healthy way to respond to difficult emotions that was not destructive. It also felt reliable, something that no one could take away from me, and the stress relief I felt from it made everything else more tolerable. For me, when my stress is high, it feels a lot like I’m treading water. I might be able to manage it for a while, but it’s tiring and becomes a constant struggle eventually. Running felt like a way to be present, to naturally relieve stress, a way to feel like I wasn’t constantly swimming in thoughts, a way to put myself back on solid ground.
Once I figured all this out in March 2020, I increased the amount I was running. In the month of April 2020, I ran over 200 miles, a ton for me considering I ran just over 300 during the entirety of 2019. I ran 34 miles in the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, 8 miles farther than I’d ever run before and the first time I felt like an actual part of the ultrarunning community. I followed that up with running 100 miles over the course of 10 days as part of another virtual race. My running was slow, and I had all kinds of minor injuries from the sudden increase in volume, but it felt great to foray into that lifestyle in a committed way. With the support of my father, I made the decision to move to Colorado in the future in order to pursue that lifestyle further. I figured even if I didn’t become a 100 miler, I could at least run regularly, explore trails in the mountains, stay active, become a part of a local running community that is a little more populated in Colorado than it was in Indiana. I wanted to be a part of an ultrarunning community that appeared supportive, accepting, non-judgmental, and included some people with a similar past as me.
After making the move in September, things have continued to grow with running. In all of 2019, I ran 327 miles. In 2020, I ran 1,451 miles with around 120,000 feet of vertical gain. Currently, in 2021, I’m on pace to run around 2300 miles by year’s end with about 270,000 feet of vertical gain (I have to actually complete it, but still, good pace). On March 6, 2021, exactly one year after the start of that stretch of nightmares and a time of crisis, I ran my first 50-mile race, a feat that I would have considered impossible in 2019. The fact that it was on that date is no coincidence either, going from a personal hell a year prior to feeling pretty damn capable of anything in a calendar year.
I am also going to brag on Rugged Running. I joined Michele and Salynda, and all the powerful athletes coached by them, in November 2020. My experience has been nothing short of stellar. Probably most importantly, I’ve always felt Michele and Salynda have my back. I told them my story pretty early on in the coaching relationship. In response, I did not feel an ounce of judgment from either of them, and I knew I was in the right place. Aside from that, Michele and Salynda are easy to trust because of their expertise. As much as I love running, I do not love all the non-running necessities that go with ultrarunning: strength training, nutrition, recovery, eating during long runs, hydration, salt, gear, and on and on and on. My motivation to learn about those things is very low at times, so it’s easier to just trust Michele and Salynda to tell me what to do. They’ve been there and done that, so by all means, Jesus take the wheel.
Michele and Salynda also make goals feel very attainable. For me, running is a part of maximizing my potential, so my goals are lofty. Currently, I am training for my first 100-mile race, Run Rabbit Run 100 in September, something I’m looking forward to competing in rather than wondering if I’m capable of completing. I’m already figuring out my race calendar for 2022 and what 100 milers I want to do in the years to come. Long-term, I want to do Barkley by 2028 (6-7 years is the rough timeframe I’ve seen from others who have gone from first 100 to Barkley). Barkley may sound ridiculous, but I told Michele I wanted to do it, and she simply responded, “Start practicing your navigation.” They’ve accomplished amazing feats, they’ve coached their athletes to similar feats, so why not? So long as I put in the work, the knowledge will be there from Michele and Salynda. That’s not a pipe dream, that’s a choice.
My relationship with running also continues to change. Even if something is a dream job, some days, it is still a job. Running is not always fun. Sometimes, it’s mostly about discipline, personal accountability, being able to put in the work in order to meet my long-term goals. For me, that’s the whole point. I am choosing to suffer, choosing to overcome it, practicing how I respond when things get difficult. That being said, most days, running is fun. I get to fly down a mountain, see hundreds of people in a park, explore amazing places, clear my mind, do a lot of things that I did not know I was capable of doing a short time ago. I’ve also learned to run with gratitude, to be thankful for what my body is capable of doing rather than being too focused on pace or time or lofty ambitions. More than anything, I just love the process of improving myself every day, and occasionally during or after a run, I get emotional over how far I’ve come in such a short time.
I had to think for a long time whether I wanted to share any of this story or not. I am not proud of some of my past. I was not the person that I wanted to be, and I am reluctant to present anything resembling a success story when I’m not that far removed. I also do not want to give the impression that running was the only piece of the puzzle. I also successfully stopped drinking, utilized therapy, and have learned to actually use the support of others instead of taking on all my issues alone. Those things make a huge difference, and I would advocate for those methods for anyone else who might find themselves in a dark place. That’s really the only reason why I decided to share any of this, that maybe somebody might gain from it. Anyone can benefit from running, hiking, walking, being active. It can also be a blueprint for someone looking for long-term change. It worked for me at least. I discovered the benefits because others were willing to share their story, so here I am doing the same.
I won’t pretend like everything magically fell into place though. I am still fighting to get my law license. I still have difficult emotions, occasional nightmares, and bad memories. None of that really matters as much as how I respond. If my legal career never materializes, I’ll still be capable of helping people out in other ways. Future adversity inevitably will happen, and there will always be an opportunity to learn and grow. The important thing is that I’m not in the ground, and my story is not redundant.