We just concluded the “remote learning” school year fittingly with this final art project entitled, “CoronaGuruji Prayer Cairn.” It includes rocks from the property, a bandana symbolizing face masks and the virus, a medal The Blur won at a track meet last spring representing the loss of track season, a wing from a road-kill turkey from an elective class called “Where Food Comes From,” a hat from Leadville Boom Days which is canceled this summer, and prayer flags for extra color. Piñon and ponderosa, father sky for background.
It was just a few weeks ago that I was finally able to rake up the dead skunk that had been frozen all winter to the ground in the first curve of our humble, wind-swept dirt track at 7,888 feet altitude. At that point I was excited for the upcoming season and the prospects for my athletes. I hadn’t the first clue what was about to happen. Since then, The Blur and I have gone there weekly, running some 400s, 800s and 1600s with warm-up, recovery and cool-down laps. I’ve seen that tracks are closed in larger communities, and actually wondered if we might be questioned by the authorities, but there was nobody else there. Just the clouds, the breeze and one conspicuous whirlwind. Our county is sparsely populated and crowds are virtually non-existent. I am thankful that we are able to do this and remain “socially distanced” and all that, but I sure miss track, coaching and all my other kids. One Saturday passed and we noted we would have been going to Mosca, where Harrison ran in his first meet in middle school five years ago. Each week we cross another canceled meet off the calendar. I’ve endeavored to keep him, and my other runners, motivated and running despite the fact that we may not have a season at all. In the final analysis, we are all just competing with ourselves, striving to be better than the person we were the day before.
Before the pandemic hit this past winter I’d been toying with the idea of producing a collection of non-fiction stories that I’ve written in recent years. I began to sort through these essays from various print and online publications, as well as my own files, and the title “American Flats” came to mind. By mid-March many of us had started to adjust to the idea that life may never be the same. Now we know for sure it won’t. Here we are, most of us more or less confined. Many of us have been furloughed from our jobs and are worried about our financial futures. Some of us have been forced to oversee our kids’ online schooling on top of our own work. Moreover, we’re all concerned for the lives of our loved ones and fellow humans. I feel that now is the time to give away something of my own creation so I rushed this thing to the virtual press. Here it is, my FREE ebook for your Apple device or Kindle. I hope you enjoy it. Download here.
Never have I seen an author so artfully blend genres of fiction and non-fiction as Christopher McDougall does in his new book, Running with Sherman.
I am a recurring character in Chris’ shaggy tale, appearing throughout the book. Though there is a thread of truth in many of the stories he weaves, when it comes to my role much has been considerably embellished or outright fictionalized. As a professional journalist myself, I’ve found this bending of the truth in a non-fiction format disturbing and discouraging. I opened my doors to Christopher as a guest to my house, my ranch, my burros, and my Hardscrabble Mountain Trail Run. He also kindly provided back-cover quotes for my books, Wild Burro Tales and Endurance. I thought we were friends. I attempted to discuss this matter with him over the phone after reading Running with Sherman but got nowhere.
For the record, I have competed in the sport of pack-burro racing for decades. I just finished my 40th consecutive Leadville Boom Days race this past summer. Along the way I’ve also won the 29-mile World Championship Pack Burro Race in Fairplay seven times, and the Leadville race four times. Not bragging, just framing some background for why I might appear in the book as this is never fully explained in Sherman. To my knowledge, Christopher has never finished a long-course burro race.
In one of my early appearances in the book, I am absurdly depicted as making “a living” by “barnstorming” on the pro pack-burro racing circuit. This scene goes on to describe me in a conversation with Ken Chlouber mockingly referring to my longtime friend Tom Sobal as “Snowball” (I don’t get it — I guess rhymes with “Sobal?”). To set the record straight Tom was not only a fellow competitor when he was racing but remains a close friend to this day. I introduced him when he was inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame, and placed the medal around his neck when he was inducted into the Leadville-Lake County Sports Hall of Fame a couple years ago. There is no way I ever referred to Tom as “Snowball” and I am not aware of anyone else ever using this moniker either. What Chris should have been written about Tom is that he is the winningest burro racer of all time with 11 world championships and holds most of the course records among a ton of other athletic achievements. To insinuate I ever referred to Tom with disrespect and sarcasm is insulting to us both.
In another scene, Chris describes me winning a race in Georgetown a few years ago, saying that I was sick and had decided to not run but drove there under questionable road conditions and only decided to run when another racer bailed. About the only thing he got right is my age and that I drove there and won the race. Other than that, the story is largely a case of “When in doubt, print the legend,” with no fewer than a dozen fictional anecdotes within about two-thirds of a page. This appears to be not a matter of merely getting things wrong. It’s more a case of Chris making things up to suit his story, the most laughable being that I was in last place at the course turn-around and still won — a physical impossibility.
In another scene Chris describes me looking for a way to cheat prior to a burro race by asking if the race organizers are measuring lead ropes. (Because this is how a seven-time world champ rolls, right? Not!) Sometimes when registering for these events organizers measure ropes and sometimes they don’t. If I asked if they were measuring ropes it was simply because I wanted to know if I needed to carry my darned lead rope over to registration and get it measured! Period. To imply that I was looking for some way to defy the rules paints a poor picture of my character.
Furthermore in this same vignette he describes my burro Teddy “going for blood and taking a chunk out of my shoulder.” Teddy never bit me on the shoulder or went “for blood” or took “a chunk” out of me. He did once clamp down on my wrist at a water crossing and drew blood. Like I mentioned, there’s often a thread of truth that gets twisted and embellished in Chris’ blended masterpiece.
For the record, I never quit journalism to “pool-shark” from town to town across the Southwest on the “professional” pack-burro racing circuit with my mentor, the late Curtis Imrie. We never did any such thing — and in fact there is no such thing. There are only a handful of races and almost all of them are in Colorado. (There have on and off been a very few races in New Mexico and Arizona.) The prize money hardly covers gas and entry fees, much less feed and care for a burro. I did take a leave of absence one summer from my newspaper job. I won a race in Chama, New Mexico, that summer — I think the prize was $600. As always we were in it more for the fun than the money.
Probably most disturbing is Chris’ fictionalized account of my good friend Rob Pedretti’s suicide. Rob died in 2004. His brothers Rick and Roger took up pack-burro racing as a tribute to Rob following his death. According to Rick and Roger many of the events and circumstances as presented in the book leading up to Rob’s death are inaccurate (Roger has a list which he has sent to Christopher as well as to me). As a final insult there is a fabricated description of Rick hearing the gunshot and carrying Rob’s body out of the woods in his arms. To drag an entire family, including a forever-grieving mother, back through such a traumatic event by way of a dramatized account is deplorable.
Also during this discussion about Rob in the book there is material presented as quotes from me. I do not recall ever discussing Rob with Christopher. Instead, this material appears to have been borrowed from my own book, Wild Burro Tales — reworked slightly then used as direct quotes.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Chris also writes about the concept of my adapting the experiences of pack-burro racing to the challenge of raising my autistic son Harrison, who I also coach as a cross-country and track runner. I first explored this in my book Full Tilt Boogie and then the follow-up Endurance.
In his story-telling Chris does get a few things right. Near the end of the book I am quoted about my son’s classmate Kyleigh saying if anyone ever bullied Harrison she would “stomp their ass.” One minor correction: Kyleigh is not a senior — she is a sophomore in Harrison’s class and they have grown up together since they were about 3 years old. I also coach Kyleigh and they both recently ran in the Colorado State Cross-Country Championships. The quote is not exactly how I said it, but I recently ran it past Kyleigh she confirms that in essence it is true.
Too bad Christopher didn’t work a little more authenticity into Running with Sherman. He had the recipe for a great story without even having to make things up — for when it comes to pack-burro racing, the truth might be more bad-ass than the legend.
Hal Walter is the author of Wild Burro Tales, Full Tilt Boogie and Endurance, all of which are available from amazon.com. He also can be found on Facebook where he regularly posts to his Wild Burro Tales page.
I’ve struggled with OCD most of my life. For a long time I didn’t know what it was or why I sometimes do the things I do.
OCD has driven me mad, and it has also made me good at some things I do — in my work life, as an athlete, and as a parent. I worked hard in my late 30s and early 40s to get the more harmful elements of this disorder under control. Some of it was hell. It was not healthy or good for example to check things over and over and over, often making myself late to work or other important functions. Or to drive around the block repeatedly to make absolutely certain I had not run someone over or caused an accident. To stop doing these things I had to come to terms with my mind making stories up that were not true or even logical. Or at least to recognize when it was doing so.
It was in this process that I recalled my earliest experiences with OCD. I was 13 and my mom had remarried in the last couple years. We had moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where my new stepdad lived and worked. I was in 7th grade and attending junior high at a recently integrated school. I had probably never heard the word “stress” before but I know now that I was feeling its cumulative effects from previous childhood trauma, all the recent changes in my life, as well as finding myself in a racially intense school situation where I once saw a kid beaten by a mob for getting into the wrong lunch line. What’s more, my mom had been hospitalized with a gall bladder attack, and my stepdad had been scheduled to leave on an untimely business trip. I was staying with friends of the family.
The school was a fair distance from home but not far enough to ride the bus. I noticed walking home one day that I was unconsciously counting steps between the sidewalk cracks. Over the days this became obsessive in thought and practice. My mom was still in the hospital. I developed a cadence between the lines in the cement that would not allow me to step on a crack. Then one day a voice in my head told me I could not step on a crack or my mom would die.
And thus it began. The absolute conviction took charge and it soon was extended to other obsessive activities. I made myself run to a certain point ahead, a traffic sign or a power pole, without stopping. Otherwise I thought my mom would die. I ran while being sure I took two steps in each square of the sidewalk without stepping on a line. Otherwise my mom would die.
Soon this thought process would apply itself from everything to counting holes in the vinyl ceiling of the family car to my homework. As I matured this same process took other forms in just about everything I did. At its best it gave me an edge at extremely detailed work like editing; at its worst it was a debilitating affliction. Sometimes it was my work. Sometimes it was household chores. Often it was in my recreation — one more cast while fishing, one more lap while running. Sometimes the part about my mom dying would be replaced with some other tragic possibility, but most often it would come back to my mom’s death.
When I finally got a handle on this, it was partly out of survival and partly out of exhaustion. I could not play the OCD game with my mind any more. There is no cure. It still haunts me almost daily — this little voice that says do this or do that, or do something extra — or something bad will happen. But I have managed to keep it checked. In recent years I’ve also recognized a strong OCD component to my son Harrison’s autism spectrum.
This past year my mom died. It had nothing to do with my OCD or failure to meet the demands of the voices in my head. She was 80 and had cancer.
Then one day I headed out to go running. I was stressed over work and money. I was short on time because of a dental appointment. I’d had a list of chores to do before leaving, including shoveling snow off the deck. As I headed out to run I realized I had not shoveled any snow. I was low on time. I thought, that’s OK, when I get back I will shovel just a little snow off the deck. I must shovel some snow because my mind is telling me I have to. Then I quickly realized that if I shoveled even a couple scoops, my OCD would take over and I would not be able to stop. I would make myself clear the entire deck. And I would make myself late to the dentist doing it. . . . But maybe just one minute of shoveling . . . There was this little voice nagging that if I didn’t shovel some snow that my mom would die.
Then it hit me like an avalanche of unshoveled snow: My mom is dead. These voices in my head were messing with me. They’ve always been messing with me even when she was alive. They will continue to lie to me even after the lie is dead. There is no cure for OCD. You can only learn to live with it, and move forward of course always avoiding the cracks.
We were a motley crew — two kids from Ethiopia, an autistic boy, two freshmen boys, a volleyball refugee, a third-generation cowgirl, and an English teacher from Ohio. Perhaps the biggest misfit was me, the first-year head cross-country coach trying to find his own stride with this band of free spirits.
I had no idea they would teach me more about running than I’d learned over 40 years in the sport.
I’d inherited the team at Custer County High School in Westcliffe, Colorado, from coach Jesse Taylor, who moved to take a minister’s job in South Dakota, and also took our No. 2 runner, his son Jeremiah, with him. Our top runner Micah had moved to Wyoming to live with his sister. At base level it appeared I would be coaching three boys, one being my son Harrison, AKA “The Blur,” and the other two being Jonah and Joey who were moving up as freshmen from the middle school team, and maybe one girl, Kyleigh, known to ride bucking bovines in the local rodeo.
Harrison himself, now a sophomore, presented the biggest wildcard. As his father I had been there as a volunteer coach for four years as he found his stride in competition. He was one of the few autistic varsity runners in the entire state and had become fairly well known regionally. He had recently appeared in Apple’s Face-to-Face presentation presentation for using the watch and music headphones to stay on task during competition. Over Harrison’s running career there had been countless meltdowns, victories and defeats. Now as the head coach of the entire team I was taking a leap of faith that he would mature into needing less help from me. I needed to be present for the other athletes as equally as possible. What I found was that the other kids were actually there for me, stepping up to help out with Harrison, something that spoke volumes about the role sports can play in developing a sense of humanity.
I was contacted early on by Micah’s older brother, Elias, who wanted to be involved with the team. Elias had been home-schooled and graduated a year early. He had been a standout on the cross-country team before opting to play football in what proved to be his senior year. Now he wanted to get back involved with running. He was preparing to enter the Army and then study at University of Colorado–Colorado Springs with the goal of becoming a physical therapist. He also was interested in coaching running at some point in his future.
A little research revealed that Elias could not run on the team since had accepted a high-school diploma. He also could not sign on as my assistant coach because he was only 17. So Elias opted to volunteer as an assistant coach.
Elias and Micah are Ethiopian. They were adopted from an orphanage and brought to Custer County by their adoptive parents, Andrew and BethAnn Zeller. Starved and weak the two boys arrived in their new home in Colorado; Elias weighed 17 pounds at three years old. Micah weighed only 14 pounds at two years old. Micah had been given the generic name “Abush” reserved for children not expected to survive.
We started in August with voluntary “open runs” which typically were attended by myself, Harrison and Elias. Along the way Jonah joined us. Then Joey.
Official practices began with just two weeks before the first meet on Aug. 24. There was a lot of confusion because the school opening had been delayed due to remodeling. Some families had scheduled vacations late because of this and some kids had jobs. When practice officially started I had the three boys, and one girl, Grace, a senior who had moved over from the volleyball team. Kyleigh, who had been a friend of Harrison’s since they were three, was planning to run but needed a doctor’s clearance because of a foot injury caused by a steer stepping on her. Kyleigh was a known quantity and a state-qualifier the previous year, but injuries made her a question mark. Besides, it was August, and Kyleigh, ever the cowgirl, was real busy helping her grandpa get his hay put up.
I was able to get the school’s language arts teacher, Whitney Day, to be our assistant coach. Besides being very well-read, Whitney also had an athletic background in baseball, softball and soccer. In hindsight I could not have asked for a better supporting coach. Her good energy and popularity with the kids proved to play a major role in the team’s cohesiveness throughout the season.
Grace brought over a contagious good energy and enthusiasm. And between her and Coach Day, they formed the glue for the little team of kids who manufactured a sense of something larger. That something grew considerably the second week of practices, when Elias nonchalantly told me that Micah would be moving back from Wyoming and at practice next week.
Micah was indeed there the next Monday. Our first meet was that Friday and there was no possibility for him to get in the required five practices before he was eligible to compete. He said he’d not been running much since the previous track season in Wyoming but did not appear to have lost much fitness. I was concerned about him starting out with too rigorous a training program.
We headed to Colorado Springs for that first meet with more coaches than runners. Only Jonah and Harrison were eligible to run, but Micah and Joey were there to cheer them on. Jonah finished about a minute ahead of Harrison, who overcame a serious case of stage fright. And with “all both” of my runners doing well, I now had my first meet as head coach under my belt.
The next week’s meet was in Leadville on Colorado Mountain College’s cross-country ski trails. It would be the most difficult course of the nine-race season at over 10,000 feet elevation and on rugged terrain. I’m certain it is the highest high school cross-country meet in the nation. That week in practice Micah mentioned a pain in his calf. Grace was back from vacation and ready for her first meet, and Joey was now eligible. Micah ended up sitting it out, with Jonah, Harrison and Joey finishing in that order, and Grace finishing her first cross-country meet on this challenging course.
That following Monday Kyleigh showed up in her cowboy boots with a doctor’s note cleared to run. But clearly she was not intending to practice. We had a talk. It was Monday and the next meet was that Saturday. If she wanted to run that weekend, she needed five practices. We found some gear in the uniform room and I had her run laps on the track in order to have five practices for that following Saturday
That week we were at Alamosa for the Joe Vigil Open. This would be the biggest and most competitive meet of the regular season in terms of numbers of competitors, with teams from throughout Colorado and New Mexico. Micah finally seemed on track and we had all six members of the team. Also, I had volunteered to drive the small activities bus, and this was my first long over-the-road trip with the “mini.”
We maybe should have left a little earlier. We got there and found a chaotic scene and long lines for the not-nearly-enough porta-potties. In the confusion I left the race numbers at our tent, and a last-minute sprint by Elias saved the day. We pinned the numbers on the four boys and they rushed to the start. They’d barely lined up when the gun went off and 376 runners vanished in a cloud of dust. In this deep field, Micah finished 10th overall, placing just a few seconds ahead of his 2A rival, Noel Lopez of Rocky Ford. With Jonah, Harrison, Joey, Kyleigh and Grace also running strong races I felt like we now had a real team. Moreover, the boys had shown a lot of poise in the face of adversity in dealing with the bib-number snafu right before the start.
The next week’s meet was at Gunnison, the Cowboy-Mountaineer Invite hosted by Western State University. In addition to middle- and high-school events there’s also a college race at this meet. I’ve been known to explore the rules, and wondered if it might be possible for Elias to run in the college event. After all, he had graduated from high school and was accepted to UCCS. There was only the small matter of Basic Training and Medic School between him and actual enrollment. I called the race organizer and explained the situation. She agreed that Elias could enter as an “unattached” runner in the college race.
So with Elias entered in this thing, the biggest question was, “What to wear?” It needed to look official but obviously not a high-school inform. At last I came up with the idea of cutting off the sleeves from a previous year’s T-shirt that said “Bobcat XC” on the front. It looked great and I told Elias if anyone asked to just say he was from Bobcat University.
By the time we arrived in Gunnison, we were a tiny squad. Jonah had a commitment with band, and Kyleigh had a date with an owl at the U.S. Olympic Training Center as part of her volunteer work at the area raptor center. Micah’s calf issue had flared up again. He warmed up then decided to bail. We left there that day with Harrison as our top-finishing runner and Joey finishing behind him. Grace was our only finishing girl. Elias had competed in his first college meet, meaning I had just coached my first and likely only-ever collegiate athlete.
We were now nearing the halfway point in the season and the next two meets would be closer to home, in Pueblo and Salida. Pueblo was somewhat of a low-point. Micah took a lead early, then placed third with his rival Noel coming on strong at the end and winning. Harrison had a horrible side cramp and though he managed to finish it was his worst race of the season. Kyleigh seemed to be running in pain. Grace developed a knee problem in the race and finished disappointed. Though Jonah and Joey both ran PRs, it seemed we’d just been handed a small dose of reality.
The next week in Salida, however, we had a rebound. Micah ran an incredible race, placing third behind two strong runners from bigger 3A and 4A schools — and outrunning Noel. Kyleigh ran a determined race. While Jonah sat it out with an ankle issue, Harrison was our No. 2 finisher and Joey No. 3.
The idyllic Westcliffe fall unfolded like a dream, with long evening practices around town, and trips to the nearby Rainbow Trail for training runs. We had team dinners during the week. I began teaching a short yoga progression as a cool-down and the kids responded enthusiastically. The days of meets were an endurance test for me as well. I am not a morning person. Many of our competitions were two to three hours away, which meant early starts. Somehow I got Harrison ready and loaded up, made the 15-mile drive to town to fire up the “mini,” loaded up the runners and their gear, and then drove away to the meet often before sunrise. After driving there, getting the coach’s packet and getting everyone lined out in their events, we would typically preview the course by walking it.
Then during the races I would bolt back and forth to certain points, shouting encouragement or tactics, and taking pictures. Usually, I would rack up more than twice the distance of my runners, some of it walking and some of it sprinting. And when it was over, we would load up and make the trip home, often with a long debate on where to stop to eat. Harrison figured a way to jury-rig the bus’ sound system to phones so we shared music along the way. We had become a family of sorts.
Something about the Salida meet seemed to get everyone back on track. Grace transitioned from athlete to team manager, continuing to practice but opting to not compete. She was a tremendous help with the race numbers, uniforms and helping to keep track of various outerwear jettisoned at the starting line. Suddenly everyone seemed healthy again. But there were now three meets scheduled in eight days.
Micah won them all handily.
Following his first win at an afternoon meet in Rye where he destroyed the entire field by 26 seconds, a man, an older white guy from another school, asked in front of the entire team, “Where did you get that one?”
There was a brief silence as if everyone was shocked at the apparently racist comment.
It was Elias who came up with the best answer. He looked at the man and deadpanned: “Africa.”
Unfortunately, I was not present for this exchange but heard about it from Whitney later over dinner. I could not have been more proud. Elias’ answer was true. It was smart, poised and mannerly. It put the guy in his place and left no room for a response. And it was just one word. I wish I’d experienced this in person, but then I may have well spoiled it with a much longer and less eloquent response.
Also following his finishing the race at Rye, Harrison had a terrible meltdown over not running as well as he had wished due to side-stitch cramps. He ran through the finish line and then continued on to a nearby field where he ran screaming around and around in circles for a long time, silhouetted in the evening sunset. This continued on through the awards ceremony and even after we loaded up and drove away. His teammates handled the tantrum all in stride.
After this there seemed a renewed energy with everyone having more fun while getting stronger and faster, and Kyleigh beginning to set her sights on qualifying for state. During our course preview at the Fountain meet I had a serious coaching moment with Kyleigh, and something seemed to sink in about strategy. I simply wanted her to start off slower, then position herself to be in the top 15 by the finish. This was the tactic I would need her to adopt. At the regional meet coming up in two weeks, the top 15 runners go to state. She responded by running to 12th pace in tough field, while Micah ran away with the boys race.
Then it was on to Monte Vista where Micah made it three in a row with a gutsy run in a chilly breeze to be crowned the Southern Peaks League Champion. I realized on the way home that I was reliving my own high school sports experience vicariously through these young runners. I had been a mediocre football player at a good football school, and never really had the experience these athletes were having. Moreover, the opportunity to work with neurotypical youth alongside Harrison was even more rewarding than all the little victories I’d experienced with him in five years of volunteer coaching.
After the Monte Vista meet I took the team to the Hooper Pool in the San Luis Valley as a team-bonding activity and to celebrate. Only Harrison had ever been there, and the others seemed taken by the hot water that gushes up from two miles below the earth, and the setting with the Great Sand Dunes and un-ending views of the same mountain range they are so familiar with from the other side. Suddenly my athletes were just kids again, bobbing around in the warm water, laughing, playing and having fun. I sat back in the sunshine and felt like I had helped create something that went beyond mere running or competition.
The regional meet in Rocky Ford was the next week and I had high hopes that Micah might win it, and then be in the position to win state 2A as well. But the universe had other plans. When Micah showed up for practice the following Monday he had the cold that was making its rounds at the school. This in turn caused him some complications with asthma that he’d had since he was a child. I had him sit out workouts or walk.
He made a valiant effort in a crazy wind at the regional meet only to finish second on Noel’s home course. Kyleigh, meanwhile ran her best race of the season, positioning herself perfectly early on, then picking off other girls to finish 11th and qualify for state. Jonah and Joey both ran personal records. Jonah, in fact, had run a PR every meet he ran. Harrison ran his season’s best time and also was the only team member to run all nine regular-season meets. Because of his autism, he qualified for the state Unified Race, which is a division for those with disabilities. So as a first-year head coach I would be taking three runners in three races to the state championships. Considering that I had only six runners total on the team I thought this to be a pretty good percentage.
After the regional meet Noel’s coach and I compared notes. I related to him how I’ve been continuously adapting our training programs as the season progressed, trying to adjust to fitness levels, injuries and illness, and the sensibilities of each individual runner. He said: “It’s like doing art.” And then it sunk in: “Yes, it’s a lot like art!”
And so it was. Our season had been a rollercoaster and now I was heading to state with a microcosm of what our team really was: an elite runner from Africa, a native cowgirl from Westcliffe and my own autistic son who often fires from another realm altogether. The entire team turned out in support to practice that week before state though three of them were not competing.
The Colorado State Championships is a huge event, with a lot of frenetic activity. It was a big deal for these athletes to travel to the event and walk the course a day ahead, spend a night in a hotel, go to a movie, then run the next day. Micah was still not 100 percent healthy, and I had by now let go of any expectations, other than that we had come a long way and were just there to have fun and do our best. I know from my own athletic background that your best is always going to change moment to moment, and under different circumstances. And I really needed to focus on doing my own best as I had one athlete in each of three races — something probably no other coach in the meet had. Also, Harrison ran last and was now on his 10th race of the season — something none of his teammates had done. I figured if I got through that without an issue or some sort of meltdown I would declare the entire season a victory.
And when it was all said and done they all ran great — their places and times were fine, but really not important in the big scheme of things. What would endure is that they all ran their best that day. It was all I could ever ask of them. They each made me really proud.
Two days later, Elias would ship out for basic training. The rest of the runners would get back to their normal lives, their other activities, their academic work, their friends and families. Micah would be named to the 2A Boys All State Cross-Country First Team. We would turn in the uniforms and have a end-of-the-year awards dinner. And begin to look forward to the next season.
It had been like doing art, and I would be forever grateful to have been a co-creator of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
There’s really nothing quite like learning your biological father has died, especially when the last time you had any contact at all you were 6 years old and swinging haymakers trying your best to keep him from hurting your mom.
Ironically, they both passed in 2019, she was 80 and he was 84.
As I recall, when I last saw him, he had come home drunk, as had become routine, and I recognized all the signs of him growing violent. So I stepped between them and started throwing punches. He picked me up but I did not stop fighting. In his drunken and surprised state, he dropped me on a coffee table and it splintered to pieces. This was the breaking point for my mom. She grabbed me and my sister Shelby, and we ran out the door.
I never saw or heard from him again.
I have several other disturbing memories that occurred prior to this incident. I later would recount some of these in my book, Full Tilt Boogie. Some still resurface from time to time. Early childhood trauma — it’s “a thing.”
My mom remarried a few years later, and my stepdad Dave stepped in, adopted and raised us. He provided a safe home, stability, sense of family and educational opportunities we wouldn’t likely have had otherwise. This new life was a striking contrast to what we’d known, and our moves with his career crossed the country from Nevada to Northern Virginia to Colorado, where I went off to study wishcraft at the CU–Boulder School of Journalism.
My mom would not speak much of her first husband, though I knew she was in contact with some of his relatives. Over the years I heard vague stories, that he might have another son, and that maybe he even had done time in prison. I never knew if any of these tales were true, and actually I didn’t really care that much.
Eventually, my half-brother Harvey surfaced. But even this did little to spark any interest in looking up my biological father. I suppose there was always this niggling thought that perhaps before the end he might reach out, see how things turned out for me. It seemed puzzling that this person who had been my father for six years could just vanish from his kids’ lives. It also occurred to me if he had any interest it would not be difficult to find me, the Internet being what it is.
I don’t have any pictures of him. Only those in my mind, many of them fleeting. Not all of them are terrible. Fishing from piers on the Chesapeake Bay. Discovering a cannonball in the muddy bank of the James River. Teaching me how to paint by brushing with the grain of the wood. For a while we had a pet monkey.
My natal father died on Aug. 29, 2019. In his obituary I am mentioned as his only surviving child, living in California. In his will he swears out that he had no biological children, even though it’s quite clear he had three. Whatever assets he had apparently were left to his sister’s daughters.
He was buried in a veterans cemetery, though as far as I know the closest he ever got to a war was shaving heads as a barber for the military. I also remember that I often had a crew cut as a child.
It is all like a strange dream that makes very little sense, but then so is life itself. I reckon we all yearn for some sort of peace with our experiences. Nobody gets out alive . . . or escapes unscathed. What’s most startling is to realize how influential a person so totally absent can be when you’ve spent the better part of a lifetime striving to be someone entirely different, someone apart.
Perhaps the best behavioral therapy for someone on the spectrum is community support and a summer job.
For years we’ve been customers at the White Bird Emporium, formerly the Sangre Home Decor, in Westcliffe. Over the years Harrison has encountered various schoolmates working there. Often he’s blurted, “When do I get to work here?”
Apparently new owner Carla Brooks heard him. Actually, it would be difficult not to. But the thing about Carla was she really did hear him and was willing to take a risk. Toward the end of the school year we stopped in for coffee and she asked him, “Hey, you want a summer job?”
The out-of-the-blue question caught me by surprise, the same way when Coach Jack Swartz asked him at the end of fifth grade if he wanted to be on the middle-school cross-country team. That experience in running led to an entirely new identity for Harrison and a journey that is still providing expansion. This one would prove to as well.
Before I’d had time to process this offer he’d accepted the job. He started a couple weeks after school let out for the summer break.
The entire endeavor has been nothing but a growth experience for him. Me too. From the responsibility of getting to work on time and practicing good hygiene, to the challenge of interacting and dealing with customers, to dealing with unforeseen on-the-job problems that can quickly arise.
Along this path he has learned to scoop ice cream, make milk shakes and smoothies, competently operate an espresso machine, ring up customers and make correct change. He’s cleaned counters and swept floors. He’s lugged dozens of three-gallon tubs of ice cream into the store when the delivery arrives.
At last count, between wages and tips he’s banked nearly $600 — more than I ever saved when I was his age but then you could have bought a car with that much then. However, the money has been just a side-benefit for him.
As is to be expected, there have been some bumps in the rocky road. Part of his spectrum is a Tourette’s Syndrome component and he’s blurted out inappropriate things a couple times. And he’s gotten frustrated in a few situations, usually when it’s not busy enough to keep him focused. He’s had some brief meltdowns. But on the whole, the job has been an amazing growth experience. I often hang out in the corner working on my laptop in case there’s a real problem, but recently he has been more independent and I’ve even left him on his own for periods of time.
One day a group of customers came in and ordered ice cream cones. When he pulled out the glass cone drawer the cones flew out and broke on the floor. I waited for the tantrum but it never materialized. Instead he said, “Excuse me,” and went to a back room.
When he returned with a box of cones he told the customers, “Sorry for the inconvenience.” Then he took their orders and scooped out their ice cream. As a co-worker rang up their bill he got a broom and cleaned up the mess.
I sat there asking myself: “Who is this kid?”
Another great reflection was when his second-grade teacher Leanne came in with her kids for ice cream. I could not help but remember several years ago when we encountered her at the local farmers market and he flew into an epic tantrum simply because she was out of context for him there. This episode is actually detailed in my book, Full Tilt Boogie. Years later here he was at his job dishing up ice cream for her and her kids. I could not help but reflect on his personal growth between then and now.
Along the way there have been countless people taking risks to further Harrison’s advancement. So many teachers, administrators, therapists, coaches, referees, and others who have taken the jump for no other good reason than an expression of their own humanity. I thank them all, and particularly Carla for providing him this opportunity.
Wrong way/right way . . . Boogie knows at the fork in the road . . .
For the first time since I started running the World Championship Pack-Burro Race in 1981 the course was changed this year due to lingering deep snow drifts in the upper reaches of the course. Instead taking the usual left, as Boogie was inclined, and crossing American Flats, climbing the talus field to the Mosquito Pass Summit at 13,187 feet, then descending the Mosquito Pass Road, we were routed straight up the road to a turn-around at the North London Mine, elevation 12,800 feet.
While this was a few hundred feet lower than the usual route and resulted in a shorter race by about 2 miles, it still was a very challenging 27-mile course with a steep climb and a lot of running water on the rocky road. I think the opposite direction also messed with the more experienced burros’ heads.
When we got to the turnaround where we had to skirt a snowfield in the mud, I realized I had blisters forming on my toes due to a bunching wet sock but we were able to keep the leaders in site. I took the sock off and ran the rest of the race with just one sock.
I was struck by the beauty of a simple clump of Columbines alongside the road and the way the sun glistened off London Mountain, the water laughing over the rocks. We were not far behind the lead group on the way down but Boogie kept slowing down. After a couple miles I realized she had a palm-sized rock wedged in her front right shoe, filling the entire sole of the foot. I stopped and went into caveman farrier mode, pounding this stone out with a rock. (People have suggested I carry a hoof pick but I really don’t think that would have worked. )
At this point the lead group was long gone and I was faced with running the last 8 miles alone and completely out of the race. I just wanted to finish with minimal stress on my body and burro. So it was one foot in front of the other until we reached the finish line in 6th place. It was my 37th finish. At 59 it’s occurred to me I might never win this race again, but winning can mean other things, like fully feeling the experience. Playing with the cards you’re dealt and doing your best with the situation. Sport as a metaphor for life. This Sunday I’ll be making a run at my 40th consecutive finish at Leadville Boom Days. It’s been a long journey and I am still learning.