Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Walk With Me

I suggested the last thing you would think of when you think of Las Vegas.
I suggested a hike in the desert.

Everybody walks in Vegas, but that's only to get from one fantasyland to another, not the scrubby reality of cacti, a blistering wind and enough rocks to stub your toe with every step. And yet on Facebook for the #WPBT, I said there was a hike I'd like to check out, the Oak Creek Loop in the Red Rock Canyon.

The fact that I would suggest this surprised no one, even if I wouldn't have suggested it a few years ago for fear of not fitting in.
The fact that almost 20 people wanted to tag along shouldn't have surprised me either.
That's just the way it's gone the last year.
• • •
I was just reading over the post from my first #WPBT trip. That was in 2007. In 2007, we had no hash tag, we went by our poker names and we all set the world, or at least the IP, on fire. I went because I loved poker, I wanted to meet a bunch of people whose writing I admired and I thought it would be fun. I also went for a much bigger reason: I wanted to change.

I was not the kind of person who could plop himself in the middle of a group of 100 and feel comfortable. I never had been able to light up a room. I preferred to stay in the shadows. I wanted to let loose a little bit. I even had this weird desire to fit in.
Did it work?

Read on. It's long, I know. But so's the journey.
• • •
When Bad Blood contacted me a couple years ago for some advice on running, I remember feeling excited about the chance to finally get to pay it forward. John Drohan is now a good friend, someone who understands me as well as anyone, but back then, he was just one of my favorites from the WPBT because we shared two common interests besides poker: working out and heavy metal.
I hate the term pay it forward, but it applies here because of my own journey with running.
Here's my backstory (this works better if you start playing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" in your head):

Back in 2005, I knew nothing about running. I was working on a story, one of my favorite ones ever, about a runner who wanted to continue his streak of running in all the Bolder Boulders despite a rare form of blood cancer. I went to his intervals practice. Some of the runners knew me a little bit from my articles about climbing 14ers — active people are active people in all respects — and they said it was fine if I watched, and it was OK if I talked to them, but to get a true sense of the story, I needed to run with them. I did. I thought it was stupid to run for only, say, six minutes at a time, hard and fast. But by the end of the workout, even though I was climbing 14ers every weekend, I was whipped. I loved the fact that it was hard. I went back the next week.

When the story ran, I came back, shy and unsure, which is always my mojo, and I began to warm up on the track, careful not to talk to anyone, almost hoping they wouldn't notice me. One of the runners pulled up beside me after a bit and asked me if I was now a member of the group. I guess, I answered. Well, she said, it's nice to have you here.

Those same runners waited for me to catch up on our Wednesday night runs around Greeley in the cold winters once intervals were over for the season. They answered my questions about shoes, tempo runs, and whatever the hell a "long" run was (they all seemed long to me).
Running is now a lifestyle for me, in the same way that climbing 14ers was before I finished them and could no longer afford the time away as much because of my kids. My time running outside keeps me sane. Literally, I'm pretty sure. I have those people to thank for it.
• • •
So Bad Blood - I still like to call him that - wrote me about a bet he made, something about running a 10K in 48 minutes or so. I told him what the group told me many years ago. Tempo runs, intervals, and a long run. I was happy to do it, not knowing where it would lead. I found myself enjoying the coaching, such as it was. And because he was a hard worker, I knew my efforts would not go to waste.
My instincts are not always right. They were there.
• • •
This will sound very silly, but back then, for my first WPBT, the one without the hash tag, I thought of some people as rock stars. Silly, yes, but it made sense if you knew who I was. I was, and remain, a professional writer, and some of these people could really write. Some had really successful blogs, like Iggy and Pauly, and many others got paid to write, and yet some wrote for the hell of it and were better than me. And even some others wrote even though they never thought they could write, but they did, on their blogs, and they were STILL better writers than me. I admired all of them.

Plus you heard stories. Their names get bantered around. It sort of reminded me of high school, how some people had status. I was never really one of those people in school. I also guess I never did get over that. I won't go into details, but let's just say, mean people suck.

One of the people who I thought of in that inner circle was Otis. He had the I Am Legend stories of mischief — he once ate Keno crayons on a bet for hundreds of dollars — and he was a terrific writer. I thought he wasn't like me in many ways, but then again, no one at the WPBT was. That's why I liked them.
(Let's be honest: A WPBT with a bunch of people like me wouldn't really be that much fun).
• • •
Bad Blood enjoyed running. I thought he might, and he didn't want to give it up after he killed his 10K. He liked the training and seeing how it paid off. My instincts were right: He was a lot like me. He later decided to try a half marathon, and I sent him a plan and stayed in touch with him when he had questions. He killed the half, too, of course.
As it turns out, his friends, the G-Vegas crew, began to notice.

I can't tell you what possessed them to get the idea to run the Vegas Half Marathon. Maybe they'd all run out of crazy things to do in Vegas, and this was something new. All I know is, Bad Blood and maybe me prodded Otis and later G-Rob and Doc and Marty to give it a shot.
I felt self-conscious when Otis began exchanging e-mails with Blood and I. That sounds silly, as I said, but it's the truth. As it turns out, I was wrong about him. Otis was a lot like me in a lot of ways too.
He had doubts. He had many, in fact, about wanting to do the half marathon, even after a successful mud run with Blood and the crew. He wasn't sure he could do the training, if he had time for it or if his body would hold up.

When you get down to it, aren't all doubts the same? I knew all about doubts. We exchanged many e-mails, but I didn't offer as much advice as I did the reassurance that he could do it. I knew how much that meant too. I needed to reassured many times in my life. As much as I hate to admit it, I still do.
• • •
I remember walking through the Aria with Otis walking beside me. Part of me was wishing on a good race for him and the rest of the crew, but I was also getting ready to feel pain and even some misery, and more importantly, getting ready to enjoy it. And then I saw a group of WPBT folks waiting to cheer us on.

I find running fascinating, but let's face it, many people aren't me. It can be pretty boring. People can appreciate the pure, electric power it takes to sprint 100 meters, but rarely do they have the patience to watch a marathon.
So I was a little stunned that people who came to party in Vegas were ready to watch us race. I can't honestly think of anything more boring than watching a race, and in Vegas there's about a billion things that are more fun to do. And yet these people were coming to watch us.

I knew they weren't there to see me, not really. They were there to celebrate Otis' transformation and see this new sport that Blood had fully embraced. But it still felt good.
When Blood, after the race at a private poker game, told me, "You're one of us now," I agreed with him.

It took far more for me to agree with him, because of who I am, than for him to say it. I felt like I was stepping out of a shadow, and the light felt pretty good.
• • •
I honestly thought that would be the end of it. I figured Blood and I would continue to talk about running, and in fact I already knew that he was planning to run his first full marathon, something only I knew at first. I figured maybe Otis would run another race or two.

I didn't understand what was happening until I made plans to come out to South Carolina in October for Mastodon weekend, and I didn't truly grasp it until I got there. I knew that a couple people were running the half marathon, but these were people who had run before (Grange) or were such good athletes that they'd handle it with ease (Drizz).
Many of my old favorites from the WPBT were there. Only they were running. Huh? Yep.
Some ran the 5K, and some ran the half marathon. I was running the marathon. I initially entered it because it was a cheap marathon, and it was time to do another. But part of me wanted to be there for Blood, as this would be that first marathon for him. And part of me wanted to show all these beginners what was possible.

The whole weekend, rather than talk about how many shots they'd done the night before or what craps game they'd played, many talked about running. Yes, we played poker until 3 a.m. the first night, and yes, some drank heavily. Things hadn't changed completely. But come Saturday, they all lined up to run their events. The night before, Otis cut things off at a party at his house at 9 P.M. 9 p.m.!
It was a wonderful and yet odd weekend for me in many ways.
Many times I heard thanks that weekend for inspiring them. I usually just said your welcome, but that's because I honestly didn't know what else to say. Otis gave a generous speech thanking me, in part, for teaching him how to run.

You could take this whole post as a big, bloated humblebrag, and if you do, you are rolling your eyes into your cerebrum at this point. As I said, this is a personal journey. But I hope this doesn't sound like false modesty. It was wonderful to hear those words from Otis. And it was even better to hear it individually from so many others. By the end of the weekend, it was as if I was some guru, and I tried like hell to not let it go to my head. My ego, to be blunt, did not need the extra calories.
But I don't think I'm the one who inspired them. I'm certain that Blood's initial hard work inspired G-Vegas to get involved, and then Otis' pull with the WPBT, and his successful first half marathon, is what inspired 25 or so to try something new, exciting and difficult.

Beyond that, I think the sport inspired them. I think their own will inspired them. I think we are getting older, and at our age, you begin to look for new adventures, and I think that inspired them as well.
I also know, most of all, they all inspired each other because I was inspired by them. I always run for my family, and my inner circle of friends here who I've trained with for thousands of miles. But at mile 21, when the first cramps hit, and I knew my body, worn out from all those hills, not only wasn't going to match the pace I had hoped to achieve, I was going to be lucky to get in without walking. I thought about all those people who had pushed themselves beyond what they thought was possible. I knew they were waiting for me. I even felt them rooting for me. That's why I continued to run and just prayed my legs wouldn't explode, even if they felt like that was a real possibility.

I wish I could have seen them finish. Instead, I'm left with two images. The first is obvious, and that's my first pupil, Bad Blood, the one who really started it all, finishing his first marathon, with his son running him in. Awesome.
The second was hearing the cheer as they announced my name as I entered the stadium, and then running by the lot of them and giving them more than a few dorky fist pumps.
It was, aside from my wife surprising me at the end of my first marathon, the best greeting I'll ever get at the finish line. I was glad I had a good walk back to reach them once I crossed the line.
I didn't want anyone to see me tearing up.
• • •
The wonderful weekend at Mastodon came with a price, and one of them was a much more mellow WPBT than we've ever seen. There were more noteables not there than those who did attend. Pauly wasn't there. StB wasn't there. Speaker wasn't there. Iggy. Falstaff. Al. Change100. Betty. My G-Vegas crew from last year, save for Marty, who I saw for all of five minutes before the tournament. Dawn Summers. Heather. Kat. The list goes on.

And yet, Mastodon stuck with me in so many ways, even if most of the participants weren't there. I played poker with a sense of aggression I hadn't found before. As a result, I took fifth in the tournament. Getting premium hands most of the afternoon and evening helped (let's be honest, it's a big reason why I went deep), but I also absorbed three horrible beats near the end that probably cost me from winning the whole thing. Yes, I actually had a shot to win, which still boggles my mind. I paid for my hotel room and my flight with my winnings from the four days. I'm even itching to play online again (that won't last).

I also misplaced the aggression. I ran the race, rather poorly, as it turns out, despite some sign wavers that saved my tired butt at the end. I PRd my 10K and my 10-mile split was better than last year's huge PR, but then some fierce winds and my weakened spirit from going out too fast made me run a 30-minute 5K, and I finished in 1:44. I was disappointed at the end even if I did finish 600 or so out of 22,000 runners.
As always, I had a great time with some constant, close friends. I don't like naming people because they know who they are, and I inevitably leave some people out. This isn't really meant to be a trip report. No one wants to read those any longer.

What this is, instead, is an ode to a hike, and how 20 or so people wanted to spend some precious Vegas time with me in the wilderness. When I posted the hike on Facebook, it seemed like a crazy idea. Then again, having a bunch of initial degenerates buy into the idea that running a 5K, a half marathon or, hell, a full marathon was a good idea seems crazy too. What's even crazier is almost everyone on the hike weren't the ones who ran at Mastodon.
I came to my first WPBT event with the idea of maybe being a different person, at least for a weekend. That's why everyone goes to Vegas, right? But I wanted it to carry over. I wanted to change who I was, at least a bit.

And yet, it seems to me, this group of people who I've come to know over the years responded to me the most when I shared what was most important to me. When I showed them exactly who I really was, well, some could not relate to it, but all of them not only respected it, they seemed to like it.
I can't really inspire anyone to climb a mountain, hike a trail in the desert or run a race. You have to do that yourself. But maybe you can read my story, and I can inspire you to show the world your true self. It's hard to do that. It's even painful. I'm still learning. But lace up your tattered sneakers, and we can walk the rocky path together.


Astin said...

Nice post.

I still think you're all nuts for running, but that doesn't mean I'm not impressed and a little bit inspired by this movement amongst our friends.

Thanks again for organizing the hike. It really doesn't take much to get some subset of this group to say "yes" to something. I know I welcome the opportunity for some fresh air when I'm in Sin City. It was fun, and I'm still working through the couple hundred pictures I took on it.

And here's hoping your new-found confidence among this motley crew sticks with you. You're a good egg, and you make the group better by your presence. The fact you've pulled so many in your direction as much as they've pulled you in theirs is testament to this.

Not that your ego needs any more calories. :)

BrainMc said...

I also want to thank you for organizing the hike. It wasn't a hard decision to change my original plan and spend some time in the desert with good people. I didn't get to spend to much time with you at Mastodon but I'm glad I got to know you better on this trip. The conversations on the trail and at the tables were very informative and enjoyable. PS. I'm glad you're having such a good time with the new puppy.

Kat said...

Loved the post, Dan. I was so sorry I had to miss Vegas, not because of poker or spinning the wheel, but because I wouldn't be able to see my friends like you. That hike looked amazing, and is making me miss it all even more.

You're wrong when you say you can't inspire someone to climb, hike or run. Passion for something is always inspiring, and yours had me actually seriously thinking about running after Mastodon. It might come to nothing, but it's helping to get me off the couch.

And I'll gladly take that path with you, but only if I can strap on roller skates instead of sneakers. *grin.

Unknown said...

I'm TOTALLY good with roller skates, Kat. Roller Skates are hot.