Jenn Shelton keeps popping up in my life. You might be thinking "Who's Jenn Shelton?" She's a minor celebrity. A world-class ultra-marathon runner and a pretty good writer. She had a bit part in Christopher McDougall's massively bestselling Born to Run. Mostly as comic relief. The book made it seem like when she wasn't winning races, she was either lost, or drunk, or wiping out. I read an interview with her once where she said she was unfairly portrayed in Born to Run. To paraphrase: “Maybe everything written about her was technically correct, but it still wasn't fair. And not great for her career.”
Possibly, it wasn't fair, but I doubt it was bad for her career. The very fact that I read an interview with her suggests that Born to Run put her on the map. Maybe not in the ultra community, but definitely for the rest of the running world. I read Born to Run years ago, but suddenly I'm bumping into her left and right, figuratively, of course.
When I returned home from the beach, I had two Trail Runner magazines waiting in my mailbox. Six weeks ago, I grabbed one in a book-store. I loved it and decided to subscribe. This always ends the same way. I'll buy a magazine at a newsstand for an absurd price. I'll see that I can subscribe for a whole year for a few dollars more than I just paid for the one issue. I wait and wait, and when the magazine arrives, there are two of them. The new month and a copy of last month, the one I've read three times while waiting for my subscription to start. Not only did I overpay for the first copy of the magazine, but I wasted eight percent of my new subscription on a magazine I've already memorized.
Jenn Shelton is a contributing editor for Trail Runner. And so far – two magazines worth of content – a pretty good one. An engaging, clean, thoughtful writer. In the July issue, she writes about a Grand Canyon running adventure with Lance Armstrong. If I have a hot-button, Armstrong is it. OK, I have more hot-buttons than I can count, but Armstrong is high on my list. Before I even started reading the article, I was crafting a letter to the editor in my head – full of contempt and smug self-righteousness. This kept my mind occupied on a scorchingly hot eight mile run.
Armstrong isn't a hero, he's a cheater. "Everyone else does it" isn't an excuse. He has no place in competitive sports, even for recreation. Gains made on performance enhancers don't disappear when the cheating stops. He dumped his wife after she nursed him through cancer. He dumped his girl-friend, Sheryl Crow, when she got cancer. I'm a counter-culture type – disdainful of those embraced by mass-media and the rest of the masses. Lance Armstrong was the anointed "prince of the fitness crowd." With his EverythingSTRONG brand and his stupid yellow bracelets. It made my eyes roll, and my head shake every time his name was mentioned, which, at his peak-popularity, was several times a week. I enjoyed his fall from grace. His clipped wings, his plummet from the clouds.
See? I'm really down on this guy. Judging him without really knowing anything about him. Unfair? That never stopped me before.
Eight miles is a long time to mull over a single subject. Eventually I softened a bit. The trail racing community hasn't banned Lance, so he has joined it. And why not? It's a perfect fit. The sport is littered with broken souls and checkered pasts. Substance abusers trading one addiction for a (questionably) healthier one. Runners who have hit the woods, not just for solitude, but to escape society. The mentally ill, the lonely souls, ex-cons, the chronically injured. It seems like every time I read something about the trail running, I'm reading about redemption.
I fit right in. A long history of alcohol abuse, social anxiety, OCD, and Tourettes. I've been a lifelong runner, but as a trail runner, I feel like I've finally found my sport. I might even say I found my identity. But this is something I work to avoid – gaining identity from activities. I've spent too much of my life putting myself in boxes : a runner, a writer, a drinker, a liberal, a guy with OCD. I took these definitions, I drew a circle around each of them, and I said "these are me". Over the past few years I've worked to switch my thinking. To see myself as something more than the contents of these circles.
There is something about trail running that appeals to the beaten-up crowd. The misfits who feel uncomfortable in polite company. Those who prefer to compete against themselves rather than against others. Pace is all but meaningless on an ungroomed trail. Speed is sacrificed to technical-ness. The ability to navigate through a rock-garden without turning an ankle. Crossing an ice-glazed stream without dunking your feet. And of course there are the hills. Hills on the roadway are rounded down to save gas, to protect car engines. Natural wooded trails tend to follow the most efficient route. Sometimes this includes switchbacks, but usually the trail is a straight line up a hill. The fastest way to the top.
The hills and terrain can be brutal, even scary. And for many (most?) trail runners, this makes a running path even more appealing. There is an element of metaphorical self-flagellation in the trail community. Embracing punishing routes as preferable, maybe even enjoyable. As if the purpose of the run is to serve penance for our weaknesses, our vices. Society won't punish us, so we need to punish ourselves.
I saw hundreds of runners in North Carolina. Virtually all of them on the bike path adjoining the main roadway. I saw a few on the beach, but in hard-packed sand down by the water. None in the soft, uneven sand where the tide rarely reaches. And certainly no one running the dunes. I have to believe that if Jenn Shelton or Scott Jurek or even Lance Armstrong were there, they would be blowing past me with a big grin on their collective faces. Running away from – or possibly chasing after their demons.
After reading Shelton's essay, I'm unable to write a rebuttal. There is nothing to rebut. Jenn is not apologetic for Armstrong. In fact she's kind of mean. She calls him a prima donna. A guy motivated by a soft bed and a good meal. Not as mentally tough as the trails-heads in her circle. But she also calls him a friend. She is not judgmental of his past sins. They have nothing to do with their relationship. They like to run, to joke, to poke fun at one another. Besides being a great runner and a fine writer, Jenn seems to be a pretty good person as well. I'm glad I'm getting to know her.