SALT LAKE CITY — About a month ago, some new neighbors moved in next door.
Every day, I walk my dogs past their house and think of all the ways in which I could — and should — welcome them to the neighborhood. And every day I let the chaos of my life swallow my good intentions, sometimes leaving just the guilt in which I can (and do) wallow.
I thought about them Saturday morning as I participated in Running up for Air — a creative but brutal event that asks runners to scale Millcreek’s Grandeur Peak (about 2.9 miles each way) as many times as they can in six, 12 or 24 hours to benefit Breathe Utah.
I thought about them, the pie I never delivered, the card I bought but never wrote in, and all of the good intentions that are suffocated by the avalanche of activity I trigger in my life almost daily.
I thought about them, and how so much seems to be just out of my reach right now. But I thought Saturday did not belong to them — or my guilt. It belonged to the reasons I was on that snow-covered trail for more than six hours struggling against the agony of a migraine that had robbed me of the two previous days.
I planned to attempt three summits during this year’s event, and then I developed a migraine that was so vicious, I wasn’t sure I could even get to the starting line, let alone a single summit.
Friday night and Saturday morning, I was in such excruciating pain, I couldn’t eat or drink anything, and I had vomited or otherwise expelled all nutrients my body may have utilized on that demanding hike in which we gain nearly 2,600 feet of elevation in just under three miles.
Three things helped me get out of bed and onto the shuttle that carried runners to Church Fork where the race to the 8,299-foot summit began — Carson Ross, Lota Ward and Hayes Tate. In the weeks before the race, I hoped to summit once for each of them. As the reality of my situation took hold, I prayed for a single summit.
All three are children who’ve battled brain tumors or brain cancer. Carson was 6 when he was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, and I met him when the Murray football team shaved their heads to show him some solidarity. He was embarrassed and afraid, and they hoped to ease his anxiety.
Later, the community organized a 5K to help his family in what turned out to be a two-year battle, and I spent a morning running with people who loved him but could only ease his suffering by loving him and his family.
I met Lota when the then 7-year-old was running a half marathon with his sisters and father to raise money for some friends who needed wheelchairs. A month later, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that has robbed him of his ability to things that once came so easily to him. Throughout his 2½-year fight, which includes a half dozen brain surgeries, he finds solace in encouraging others to persevere in pursuit of their goals, especially when those goals involve any kind of running.
I never met little Hayes. He died on Dec. 3 after fighting choroid plexus carcinoma for nearly a year. But I met a family friend, Mark Robbins, who was running last year’s “Running up for Air” event as a show of support for Hayes and his family, who were just six weeks into their battle last February. I joined Mark on one of those summits, and I’d watched his family’s fight through the advocacy of his father, former Utah football standout Steve Tate.
I didn’t sleep well Friday night, and the pain in my head was so severe, I worried I wouldn’t have the depth perception necessary to navigate the treacherous sections of downhill Grandeur offers runners. Last year I started my second summit after an early morning summit and full day of work and what I call momligations around 11:38 p.m.
The section from the saddle to the summit, which is less than a half mile, and then back down, was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. It tested me in ways I still feel a year later.
Running up for Air 2016 left deep impressions on me. First, in addition to the epiphanies that come from struggling with the dark parts of one’s own heart and mind, I was incredibly inspired by the humble advocacy of race organizer Jared Campbell.
In ultra running, Campbell is a legend, but don’t expect him to tell you that — even if you ask. Among his most impressive accomplishments is that last year he became the only person to ever finish the Barkley Marathons for a third time. The race is a 30-year-old, 100-plus-mile ultra race that only 14 men have ever finished. It’s described in a documentary “The Barkley Marathons: The race that eats its young.”
I was inspired by his discipline as an athlete, but also in his dedication to a cause that seems so obviously noble, I have a hard time figuring out why it’s not a political priority for our state leaders — air quality.
Salt Lake’s air quality, especially in the winter inversions, is one of the worst in the country. On Jan. 31, it was rated the worst in the country by the EPA, and scientists warn every winter of the detrimental impact on our health, especially to the young, sick and elderly.
Breathe Utah is a nonprofit that attempts to educate residents and lawmakers about what causes Utah’s poor air quality and offers solutions. Some issues are so massive, so complex, it may seem there isn't much an individual can do to make a difference. Campbell's decision to make his annual run a fundraising, awareness-building event convinced me otherwise.
There is power in individual choice, maybe more than we realize.
I can give up the convenience of drive-thru windows. Instead of warming my car, I wear a warmer coat and scrape my windows. Instead of idling, I keep a blanket in my car for those times I need to wait in my car for work or personal reasons. I may not be able to solve the problem of air pollution myself, but I can do something.
Breaking Saturday’s race into small pieces is the only way I managed two summits. It’s also the only way to solve societal problems.
I broke each section of my two summits into small pieces. I reminded myself that I was Carson strong, that I was Hayes tough and that I had Lota pride.
As I summited for the second time, I ran into Mark Robbins again. He was wearing his “Summit for Hayes” hat, and we took a picture to mark our second encounter to honor the life and legacy of a brave family and a tough little boy.
On the way down, I fell so many times, I lost count. Normally, repeated falls make me afraid and frustrated.
But Saturday, they made me grateful.
While I only managed two summits — just over 5,000 feet — the 120 runners who participated earned 471 summits and 1.27 million vertical feet of ascent.
Some days, the task seems too big, the challenges to painful. Some days, the chaos is overwhelming and my abilities insufficient.
So I do what I can, where I can and for the people who are closest to me in the storm. Maybe it’s my family. Maybe it’s that neighbor I’d really like to meet. Maybe it’s turning off my idling car or lobbying for a bill that might make clean air a priority for the powerful.
And maybe it’s a stranger on a trail, who may be struggling against pain I can’t see, and just needs a kind word or a smile. It is, I realized Saturday, not my job to solve every problem.
My job is simply to make the best decisions I can each day, to forgive myself when I fall, to remember I’m not in any fight alone, and to know I’m capable of achieving great things, even in the face of painful challenges. Just as the climb to the summit comes one step at a time, change — personal or social — comes the same way.