My life is riddled with incompleteness and unpreparedness. The amount and complexity of tasks I will attempt over the next few days and months is reality-shifting. (It’s like fingernails scratching on a chalkboard, both horrifying and alerting.) I am blissfully overwhelmed.
But this day I found myself standing next to a French family with their distinctively-European shoes and dialects. I looked down over steel railing into a canyon with spires and arches and hoodoos, like a congress of red people waiting 140 million years for an Asian couple to snap a selfie from the safety of our perch. Each rock was carved with erosion, banded by layers of sediment, rounded by the ages, surely reminiscent of castles in ruins. Bryce Canyon seemed smaller than I had imagined but almost unimaginably beautiful, unbelievably intricate. This place brought me on a sluggishly boring 17-hour drive with my preoccupied mind trailing, dragging, stretching all the way back to Tulsa. As I walked the rim and descended down into the sloping canyon, thoughts turned finally to the 50-mile foot race I was about to begin, and the problems I brought with me to the start line. Thoughts simmered down into murmurs of words, but not actually words themselves; feelings of words, which have a much more weighty connotation and implicate themselves directly into the heart of the matter you’re trying not to confront. The color of worry and the sound of eminent adversity flood my mind.
I’m a persistent fellow. A lion at heart. I push and pursue. I land on an idea or even the idea of an idea, and that’s enough to find my veins coursing with the virus-like plan to succeed - or to start, which is an even more daunting and measurable feat. The virus that crushed me into a billion consumable muscle fibers was a real virus. The kind that lays you sweating under covers in dreams of frozen footfalls, exhausted, afraid, and wondering if this is what death feels like. Though it wasn’t the enemy, but the resistance that turned on me, burning and pillaging, weakening the body until desperation set in and the doctor was called. The weakened state rallied to repair, set back like coffee trees pruned by machete, for production breeds waste.
I remember walking into the strip mall at 18th and Boston in 2003, admiring the old brick wall defining the long, narrow space. Imagining where the counter would be. Where the roaster would be. Where I would be. I had spent the previous two years learning more about coffee and coffee shops, about business and business plans, and trying to raise the money to get the DoubleShot started. Things went sideways and I found myself in dire straights. In a desperate place without the basics, but still chasing down that dream. I had a vision. But I was wholly unprepared for what was about to happen: the most intense endurance event of my life.
My dad started his own business. I remember the day it happened. Night, really. It was an exciting event that catapulted him from employee to independent contractor. The boss. He was always THE BOSS to me, but he stepped into that role in business after growing up disadvantaged. His family moved around a lot in rural Illinois, trying to farm or simply subsist. They lived for 6 years in a garage they built - 3 girls, 2 boys, and my grandma and grandpa. They dug a well with shovels and drank the dirty water that seeped up from it. They used an outhouse, and slept in rooms separated by hanging sheets, gazing up at the stars, visible through gaps between slats in the roof.
While living on a farm, they grew so tired of eating eggs that they finally ate the chickens, and then they had no eggs OR chickens. And it wasn’t until my dad was a junior in high school that they moved into a house with indoor plumbing for the first time in his life. He grew up with the grime and shame of poverty.
I have never lived without indoor plumbing. Because of my dad’s upbringing, he made sure we never showed our desperation when there was any, and he worked like a dog to provide for his family. But I did spend the first three-and-a-half years of the DoubleShot living without gas or electricity, taking cold showers and sleeping in the extreme heat and relative cold of Oklahoma summers and winters. It turns out starting a business is hard and requires a great deal of sacrifice. You start dismantling Maslow’s pyramid and eventually begin to sacrifice your self. Your health. But not your hope.
The traitorous antibodies lived up to their name and began to consume my muscles. Strength waned as the deterioration worsened. I fought back and took counter-measures in the gym and on the road and trail. But it’s easy to forget your body is in a compromised state. I impatiently jumped out of a coffee trailer, and when I landed 8 feet below, my knee twinged. Knee, hamstring, glute. The other knee was already questionable with intense, stabbing pain coming and going. Climbing ladders is a bear these days. The tear in the back side of my leg hadn’t healed over the past 5 months, and it often feels like the butt muscle has torn away from the bone. Every minute of my drive to Utah was a painful reminder that I was unprepared to run the race.
Sometimes you start unprepared. Life throws you curve balls. And you’ll never feel like you’re completely ready, completely competent, fully qualified (if you’re smart). So you just have to pull the trigger. Follow through. Start the race or the business. Just show up. When I showed up in Glendale, Utah two days before the race, it just so happened that an entire jar of pasta sauce fell off the counter and landed squarely on the middle toe of my right foot. It swelled and turned black, certainly broken.
I run when I don’t know what else to do.
I ran the day my cat died.
And the day my dad died.
I was unprepared for both of those events. So what did I plan to do on this race day for which I was so poorly trained and bio-mechanically compromised? Run.
The DoubleShot opened with a sputter on March 5, 2004. I still had dreams of success and rapid growth and hard work, while maintaining the fitness I’d fought so many years to attain. I was invincible. And then my dedication to this craft turned into self-sacrifice and that led to some resentment for those who didn’t share or appreciate my passion. I got the feeling people loved that I was passionate but wished I was a little more moderate about it. Moderately passionate. I’m not.
The 50 mile race at Bryce Canyon began at 5a on June 2, 2018. I’ve done more ultramarathons than I can remember, and each one is difficult in its own way. This one, I knew might not be possible for me. We trotted off the start line in the dark and started uphill. I began trying to manage my gait to avoid sharp pains in my knees, toe, and hamstring.
“You may not be good, but you sure are slow,” my dad would say. I worked for him growing up, and continued to work on school breaks and when I quit my personal training career I worked for him again. I’m no tradesman, not a fine craftsman like my dad was. So he didn’t go too hard on me but gently let me know my strengths did not lie in floor covering installation.
My dad’s words rang through my head during the Bryce 50 as I struggled, fighting pain and lack of training and dehydration and hyperthermia. I decided to quit. Like I’d done so many times in the years running the DoubleShot, I decided to quit. And then I sat down and took a break, had a talk with myself, and summoned the strength to stand up. And move forward. Just keep moving forward.
Unpreparedness is not a death sentence, not a guarantee that you will fail. It is a guarantee that you’re about to encounter a great deal of adversity, of expected and unexpected problems. And you must deal with them as they come. So as unprepared as I was physically for this race, and as unprepared experientially and educationally as I was for opening the DoubleShot, I had been training my mind for many many years to solve problems, push through hard times, and not give up.
You can’t go back and change your birthright. Most of us are not born with the resources and safety net that make success a matter of strategy. But because of that, we develop something that is very difficult to acquire if you’re born into privilege. We learn to earn. We learn to solve problems ourselves. We learn that with enough grit and determination, many tough situations can be endured. While others buy solutions or throw in the towel, or struggle with questions of self-worth and secretly doubt their own competence; we, the scrappers, the unprepared, fight our way through failures and achieve a level of real success that is unavailable to the others.
As I embark on the construction of the Rookery, the most expensive project of my life thus far, I am highly aware of the fact that I am unprepared. I’m learning as I go. Changing plans as we progress. Doing my best to deal with problems, anticipate future needs, and share this journey with the customers, the reason for our toil. I struggle with the amount of work on my desk and on my mind, with the questions I don’t know the answers to, and the skills I wasn’t born with and have not yet learned. But I still have a chest full of hope. An unwillingness to quit. And a desire to see a better future.
I finished that 50 mile race. I found moral support at the aid stations and some ice bags to cool my overheated body. As it turned out, the last few miles were downhill and all I had to do was try not to stub my broken toe on the way to the finish line.
That’s what I inherited.