The Running Bum

Running Wild With Words

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I sat in the dingy Monticello bowling alley, neon lights shining down on me as I ate a slice of greasy pizza that was no match for the sweat dripping down my face. I took a deep breath, tilted back my black felt hat and signed my name across the dotted line ignoring fear of commitment, the unknown, political version, misdirection, solitude. I’m writing a book. At first the thought processed only in my head, reminding me that I actually needed to get to work. I dashed to the bathroom–my last chance in civilization preceding my next round of holing up in the primitive world of Bears Ears National Monument–I looked in the mirror and said aloud, “I’m writing a book!” I skipped out of the gas station with my backpack on and high stepped my filthy moccasin boots into the dirt yellow colored Jeep. It was time to go home and work.

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At 2 pm I reached the canyon trail head–not the ideal time to start a backpacking trip in Grand Gulch, let alone my crazed attempt to run the route and get back to the Jeep before dark. But this was my story, my guidebook, my rules. I pulled my food bin from the trunk, unrolled a flour tortilla, popped a can of black beans and smothered it in ketchup. For insurance purposes I twisted open a can of pickles, the sweet kind, ate a few from the jar and took a shot of the juice. No cramps for me in this desert heat.

-4.jpgI bopped down the trail as four backpackers–the only people I would see all day–trudged back to their car in disbelief. Maybe it was the running or the late start? But if I told them I was writing magazine stories, a book, training for the Mountain Running National Championships and living out of my Jeep on public lands they would not believe me anyways. I smiled at the strangeness of the confluence of such a wild life finding such a feral creature like me and tuned my eyes to focus mode–there were turns to make, ruins to spot, plants to identify, photos to take and mileage to get in.

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Despite my life’s goal being to write books, taking on a guidebook to the Best Hikes in Bears Ears National Monument was not the first large scale project that I envisioned. Not only does the task include large volumes of writing (the easiest part for me), but requires providing pristinely accurate directions, taking hundreds of beautiful photos in the field and MAKING THE FREAKING MAPS. The latter terrified me most but also sold me on the project–I’m finally becoming a real explorer.

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The book also came with much trepidation in many arenas. It is a HUGE responsibility. It is controversial. It is a massive area (1.35 million acres). It is sacred. My initial thoughts were uncharacteristically insecure–everyone hates the people that write guidebooks. It is looked upon in some circles of wilderness dwellers and seekers as not just giving away, but selling, the treasure map. I wrestled with this nightmarish belief for a month. It was not until I talked to my friend and archaeologist RE Burrillo (who admittedly is not a HUGE fan of guidebooks), that to protect the historical, cultural and natural resources of such a delicate area the public must be directed properly. And for the Monument to stand on its own legs visitors must be able to experience and explore it safely. Lastly, someone is going to write books like this anyways–if I do it I have the opportunity to do it sustainably and consult the researchers and tribal council members to ensure that it is completed in such a way that shares the beauty of Bears Ears with the world in a way that protects what is sacred and conserves the area for generations to come.

Fortunately thoughts like this rarely last in my head and the contract was signed. Spend enough time in solitude crawling around the desert and you become deeply in tune with the self deep inside your soul that is not influenced by the outside human world (but never write off the moon, oh the moon will speak, sing, shake and stir your soul endlessly). By the end of May half a dozen of the 20+ routes I need to put together were completed. These routes all coincided with my unorthodox training for the US Mountain Running Championships (I placed 14th), completing a story and photos for Trail Runner Magazine (September Public Lands issue is out now), various photo assignments and finally seeing my story for REI, focused on my personal healing process associated with the cultural rituals of the tribes fighting to protect this area, go to press.

The book, being published through Mountaineer Books for the Colorado Mountain Club, is available for pre-order now. It gives me tremendous pride knowing that this book will provide knowledge and access for the public to experience such a beautiful place that is not the most intuitive. At over 1.35 million acres Bears Ears is primitive (no amenities, no cell service, no marked/signed routes), but it IS worth a visit. Whether traveling to this National Monument is on your road trip hit list or not, it is my hope that this book is a joy for anyone looking for a glimpse into one of this country’s crown jewels. From deep, narrow and winding canyons, red rock cliff dwellings, ancient rock art, 11,000 foot mountains, world-class crack and desert tower climbing, micro-climates and panoramic vistas of the four corners region Bears Ears encapsulates that magic of the Southwest unlike anywhere else in the world.

My most daunting tasks forging routes, taking photos, getting my mapping on and researching the history and ecology are ahead of me. The manuscript is due as soon as possible (again, this is not your average book deal–this IS an adventure) in order to make a release date in very early 2018. The weather right now is total shit in the canyons (hot as hell, flash flooding, biting flies), giving me a narrow window during the peak fall season to complete the project. I am thrilled to share this journey with my fellow readers, explorers, defenders of wild spaces, runners, hikers, wanders and the ancient ones who clearly still dwell among the majesty of Bears Ears, the Changing Bear Maiden. I am humbled and grateful to be given the opportunity to use my voice and vision to share and protect it.-2.jpg

 

 

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Photo: Andrew Burr
Morgan Sjogren and Jenn Shelton run into the beauty of the unknown in the French Alps. Photo: Andrew Burr

The Disaster Training Plan

Morgan Sjogren   |   Jul 26, 2017
Story originally published on Patagonia’s Blog “The Cleanest Line”

“We just have to run 20, 30 or 50 miles a day over some mountains. What could go wrong?”

When I received my itinerary from Jenn Shelton to run the Tour du Mont Blanc, I took a hard swallow of quickly drying saliva, knowing that my background as a middle-distance track racer (specializing in the 5K) would not prepare me for the 105-mile Tour du Mont Blanc which passes through three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) and gains 30,000 feet of elevation in the technical terrain of the Alps. While I lacked the typical preparations needed for a through-trail run of this magnitude—I don’t run 105 miles in a full week let alone four days—my stoke to explore a new mountain range was high, as was my willingness to hop on a plane to Chamonix and prepare myself for the biggest run of my life with just five day’s notice.

Granted, this particular method did not help me or my running compatriots, Jenn and photographer Andrew Burr, actually finish the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), but it proved effective enough to help me run farther than I ever thought imaginable in three short days, despite torrential downpours, wrong turns, snowy mountain passes and minor injuries. While it’s no scientific formula or rule book by any means, the Disaster Training Plan will help prepare you (mostly mentally) for maximum adventure and “fun” when you have the urge to take on something way beyond your current fitness, perceived ability or experience level. You don’t have to be a professional athlete or an ultramarathoner to complete an epic multiday trail run—you just have to be crazy enough to say yes and accept the inevitable beat down that will happen to you along the way.

Photo: Andrew Burr
The locals stare in wonder as Morgan Sjogren and Jenn Shelton giggle their way directly into the next storm. Photo: Andrew Burr

Pregame

Every runner knows that with less than a week until your event the only thing left to do is taper (to rest your body), carbo load and hydrate. I took this very seriously in the days before taking on the TMB—with an “easy run” straight up the vertical K in Chamonix “just to get a coffee.” Another option is to just lay in the grass and stare up at Mont Blanc as you study the guidebook. Individual definitions of the chill pill may vary. The result (hopefully): feeling in tip-top condition on the first day, so you have a true baseline of just how hard you will run yourself into the ground.

Pack Light

If you are using the Disaster Training Plan, you are already a glutton for punishment so don’t make it worse by bringing anything unnecessary in your pack that will weigh you down. I carried my trusty M10 Jacket, Houdini Pants, Nano Air Jacket, extra socks, water and lots of snacks. Bottles of rosé are important. Don’t forget those. They quickly help you forget about that next 5,000-foot climb up ahead.

Ready, Set, Hike

On game day, we set a not-so-strict start time of 9 a.m. and took off … at walking pace. This confused the hell out of me because in track I run fast, not slow, and walking is not even in my forward motion vocabulary. However, I learned this strategy will save your legs for the long mountainous stretches of trail in the days to come. Three days later I sang the praises of the stage one “Tour of Sidewalking” as I crawled, exhausted, shivering and with trench foot, up two 5,000-foot Italian mountain passes in a massive rain/sleet/snow storm. I will never scoff at the notion of walking ever again.

Photo: Andrew Burr
When disaster strikes, just furrow your brow, look it in the face and laugh with the madness of truly living in the moment. Photo: Andrew Burr

Refuel

On long days, make sure you are eating plenty of real foods—things like spaghetti and meatballs, beer (yes, that’s a food group), candy, Nutella and hard-boiled eggs. There is no science behind this. You have two options in the disaster plan: Eat what tastes good or eat what is available. A soggy tuna sandwich can quickly become both when you are lost in Italy with many hours of running ahead of you over yet another mountain pass.

Shake It Out

When you complete a section of a multiday adventure, don’t immediately sit down and start drinking wine. Open the bottle and stretch it out. A bit of active recovery in the form of yoga, light walking, medieval sword fighting or even dancing will help keep your blood circulating and your muscles from cramping up. Remember: You’re not done yet, so don’t act like it.

Read the Maps, Guidebooks and Signs

You’re already going much farther than you have any business going. Don’t screw it up with a wrong turn and make your day exponentially longer. Of course, this is the disaster plan and you likely didn’t even take weather conditions into consideration before you started. All it takes is one heinous storm of slashing rain to leave your map in less-than-useful condition and the signs impossible to find through the mashed potato thick fog. When this happens don’t forget to smile and find other uses for it like toilet paper, tissue or even a rain hat.

Photo: Andrew Burr
Jenn and Morgan consult useless rain-soaked maps in a quest to find the next refugio. Switzerland. Photo: Andrew Burr

Expect the Unexpected

When the Disaster Training Plan is followed properly, you will have a distinct advantage over your fully trained compatriots: no preconceived expectations. Even the most skilled, talented and prepared adventurers will face challenges and major obstacles, but a bold soul like you expects this and therefore is much more resilient in the face of adversity. It’s what you signed up for. When disaster strikes you will furrow your brow, look it in the face and laugh with the madness of truly living in the moment.

Heart Trumps Training

The mental training required to complete a big mountain mission can’t be overlooked. Andrew—a climber who admittedly did not run more than six miles (ever) before the TMB—is likely an alien or has magic powers, but he swears that he is able to keep pace with professional runners (all while carrying heavy camera equipment) because of his mental game, “If you love adventure, you have to be able to turn your brain off and enjoy the suffering part of the process.” So yeah, it’s going to hurt. Deal with it.

Accept Failure and Enjoy the Journey

Some rad dude (Yvon Chouinard) once said, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Disciples of the Disaster Training Plan are seeking just that. You didn’t jump on this trail to get a finishers medal or set a Strava record. This is a transformative experience. One that will break you down to nothing more than your underwear (because your clothes are permanently soaked) as you eat yet another plate of pasta at an Italian refugio while the rain beats down upon the tin roof. You will wonder how you will take one more step, but you go on anyways because you have no choice—the nearest train station is an entire country away over, yes, another mountain pass. However, the Disaster Training Plan does not discourage making the bail-out option your new goal. Sitting through a marathon travel day of hitchhiking, plus multiple trains and buses, in your rain- and cow-shit-soaked clothing is a right of passage all its own.

Photo: Andrew Burr
Rain-soaked gear? No problem! Morgan dines in her underwear and demonstrates one of the benefits of the Disaster Training Plan: always having a great bar story. Photo: Andrew Burr

Be Willing to Recover

Don’t expect to walk away from this game plan in one piece. Afterwards, you will drink whiskey. You will need ibuprofen. You will buy cheap frozen peas to reduce the swelling. Your ass will be laid up on the couch. You will elevate your swollen limbs. But you will accept and ingest all of this with a twisted smile on your face basking in the glow of proving the naysayers (most likely your own body parts) wrong.

While the Disaster Training Plan may not leave you fully ready for the heinous slog you are about to begin, it will save you from the worst type of agony possible: the regret of not even trying. At the very least you will always have a cool bar story, and maybe a few battle wounds, but more than likely you will uncover a piece of yourself that can only be found deep in the wilderness while traveling under the power of your own motor along the edge of a path unknown.

 

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Morgan (“Mo”) Sjogren runs wild with words anywhere she can get to with running shoes and a pen. A lifelong competitive runner, Mo is a newcomer on the trail and mountain racing scene. She currently lives out of her Jeep Wrangler at the best trailheads all over the western United States.

The mountains strengthened her legs, lungs heart. But the desert, it strengthened her soul. It’s silence sang loudly and it’s dirt danced wildly around her. The one place the kept calling her back.

She cracked open the windows and let the summer rain inside and set her spirit free. There were burritos to make…

A few attempted cracks of the beer cap on the ephemeral sandstone rock saluted the world of open freedom. There was nowhere to go but a place as still as this one allowing a whirlwind within to unlock the magic.

I didn’t even come to Silverton to watch Hardrock 100.

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It was 3 am on Saturday morning and as I hiked in the dark through frigid streams carrying two packs filled with aid station supplies, half a dozen mashed potato burritos, a bivvy sack and my ultra-light backpacking coffee maker the only thing that made sense to me was that I finally lost my mind. But then again, I love this shit. –>Mo randomly drives to small mountain town, immediately makes new friends, gets sucked into a new adventure.<–When I arrived at the alpine aid station I bypassed the 5 people strewn between the media tent and a meager campfire and walked over to some tall grass. I pulled out my bivvy, took off my wet shoes and crawled in for what I hoped might be some semblance of a nap.

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“Did somebody say Jamil?” I sat up upright and attentive as if I never slept a wink (does 10 minutes count?) Gina (Lucrezi) laughed, “I said for real.” Oh well, awake as can be I decided to trust my instincts and stay awake for game time. After all, at 83 miles into the race Jamil Coury nor his pacer Mike Versteeg could afford to miss any of the precious supplies I had pack-muled from Ophir up through the woods.

Ask any trail/mountain/ultra runner about the holy grail of races and Hardrock 100 will ALWAYS make the list. Sure I’ve heard of the event before but, being so very new to this sector of running, I never knew what it actually meant–the 33,000 feet of vert, the week long party the precedes the race (including not one but TWO beer miles), the insane lottery system that makes getting an entry tougher than even covering the 100 miles of mostly alpine terrain between 9,300 and 14,000+ feet elevation. Basically as a former middle distance runner this event flew off my radar into the category of bat shit crazy.

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My original game plan in Silverton, Colorado was to spend the month of July training high and living simply to get ready for the Kendall Mountain Race on July 22nd. I signed up for the race in February not even knowing that the event climbs up (and back down) a 13er. Clearly I live by the philosophy that ignorance is bliss…or perhaps I know better and there is no use planning too much because the wild life constantly chooses me and I simply need to always be at the ready to roll with it. Anyways, in the spring I interviewed Kendall Mountain race director Jamil Coury for a story I wrote for REI about his affinity for mashed potato burritos during races. Fast forward to July 13th (Hardrock Eve) and I was making a mountain of the burritos, like a dirtbag catering service, and prepping to crew (solo) my first 100 ever for someone I just met. How the sun and moon aligned for this to happen is a story for another time, but between my expertise at making cold burritos, crewing my Mom for extreme cycling races in the mountains and my spontaneous nature  I knew I was the right woman for the job.

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The day began with a pre-dawn wake up call to load up the supplies (a dozen mashed potato burritos, a plethora of Gu’s new toasted Marshmallow gel, NuttZo, Mas Korima cookies and last minute searches for Salomon soft flasks), walking “all the way” across town to the start and then watching 150 runners embark on their 100 mile journey. I hit the road to the first aid station, Cunningham at mile 9, and enjoyed the sunrise amongst many friends I’ve made in the running world which is something I appreciate most in this sport–no matter where I go I have some crazy family members to hang with. Case in point, immediately after Jamil passed through the station in 65th and took burrito #1 I hit the road with Celia from Gu and filmmaker Billy Yang to cook up a breakfast feast. Once properly stuffed I traded Scott Johnston/Uphill Athlete workout war stories with Luke Nelson and then pranced off on a run with Clare Gallagher. By the time I returned it was time to wake pacer number 1 up from his hangover inside his house (aka Van) and hit the road to the mile 43 aid station at Grouse.

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In no danger of being late to resupply and link up with our runner, Mike and I found ourselves in a crash course of getting to know each other as we avoided the rain for four hours sitting inside the Jeep as my yellow caravan quickly became the social hub of the entire aid station. As everyone else convened around the Jeep while getting soaking wet, Mike and I stayed dry and entertained with a few rounds of Hangman, I spy, knife wielding dance parties, beer, yelling at one-armed monster Kilian Jornet, creating a support group AND a reality TV show. If anyone can handle tight quarters like these it’s two 30 year old dirtbags living out of their vehicles. Hours later game time arrived. Mike pranced down the road to join Jamil in 25th position while I set up a burrito buffet with enough snacks to get him Ouray.

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Already 4pm I stopped in town to pick up a pizza and then hit the Million Dollar Highway to the next aid stop. I quickly realized how much driving crewing a 100 miler involved but I figured it would be a great way for me to get to know the new hood since I plan to hang around here for a while. Once in Ouray I linked up with pacer #2, Schuyler Hall to help him warm up properly for his leg of the journey with some track drills. Jamil ran into the park, still freaking smiling, swapped some gear and loaded up another burrito. Listening to his stories about running through hail storms and over 14ers all day made me really wish I had opted to pace him and prance around in meadows singing songs, laughing and telling stories together, but then I reverted my brain back to business mode–someone has to be the bearer of burritos after all.

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(You can catch the footage of this and his race in this unique video that he actually made while racing.

Schuyler and Jamil hit the trail while Mike and I jumped in the Jeep and fought the urge to fall asleep en route to Telluride by blasting a mix of 2 Chainz and Queens Of The Stone Age.

Once at the next aid station we figured we had a few hours to spare and catch some sleep. It took a while for the adrenaline rush of driving under the influence of exhaustion to ware off and we maximized the loopiness by igniting the next super athlete fan craze–#KilianingIt. It was hysterical for 5 minutes for us at least, then we cracked open some Sufferfest beers and promptly passed out (with them in hand and still mostly full) in the park grass like the hobos we actually are.

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At home in my element (on the ground outside) I felt as though I actually fell asleep, but it probably was not more than 10 minutes before I got a call from Jamil’s sister that he was nearing town. I doubted it (because at 1 am that would mean he was an hour ahead of pace from the last station) but I walked over to the staging area in my delirium to scope it out. 5 minutes later I turned around and there was Jamil sprinting, now in 8th place. Oh shit. I faked being awake and coherent, threw open his bag, spread out all the snacks onto the ground, tucked another burrito into his pack and started running back to the grass to wake up Mike who actually didn’t believe me that Jamil arrived. Despite being a less than organized crew it all came together, also likely because Jamil is both a super relaxed person and is a total 100 miler pro who does other totally mad races like Barkley. Before Jamil took off he looked at me and in a very serious tone asked, “See you in Ohpir?” Yeah, fuck being tired. I clearly had my most important mission of the night ahead of me.

Despite drinking one of Jamil’s drop bag Monster energy drinks (the first of my life–disgusting), I made a few wrong turns on the drive delaying my arrival in Ohpir for a night hike and forest nap. I grabbed Jamil’s duffel bag (now not only stuffed with fuel, but also dirty wet socks, camera gear and even a bedazzled white dress shirt which I wore to simply celebrate its strange existance) in addition to the official burrito-pack (also containing my bivvy sack and emergency coffee supplies). Again, I didn’t sleep much (10 minutes max) and when Jamil and Mike ran in it was a very different scene than the previous 83 miles. Jamil was in good spirits, but clearly tired ( I wonder why) and nauseous. The goal of the next 30 minutes–keep him awake (his Achilles heel in long races) and make him eat. He asked me to tell him about my day (probably the last thing I expected someone in this stage of racing to request), so I told lots of silly stories while he choked down some vegan ramen and charged his Suunto watch (which would later cause a serious wrist injury–his only ache from this entire ordeal).

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Because I am a competitor by nature and a team player (#TeamMashedPotatoBurrito) here I made a deal with the devil to boost morale–no more naps for me if he promised not to nap. I would stay awake through the night AND even run my hill interval workout on Kendall Mountain before he finished to suffer ever so slightly in solidarity. He took off running into the night with Mike and I immediately questioned my sanity as I hiked back over the rivers and through the woods to the Jeep as the sun rose over the stunning peaks surrounding me.

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As it turns out Jamil still had several more hours of running ahead of him and no more requests for me to deliver the burritos, so I ate one. Even over 24 hours later and a bit soggy it was delicious.

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I took off to Kendall and somehow hammered out an amazing workout. I looked over the road at the stunning vistas and let my imagination drift off and envision myself racing up the wild and tough peaks and valleys of Hardrock. WTF is wrong with me? Is this was over 24 hours of sleep deprivation does to you or am I really thinking I’ll race 100 miles someday? High above the town of Silverton I faced a truth I have always known since I was a little kid–I want to run and romp and eat snacks in the mountains all day and never have to go back inside (which is why I live in my Jeep). I also love to race. Crewing for this race was far from random, far from planting a seed. I unlocked a truth and a dream from deep within me that I was never ready to look at, let alone nurture until now. Just two weeks before I walked down the main street of Silverton with the strange feeling of arriving, like a homecoming, and this was it.

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As the clock marched into the 29th hour we got word that Jamil was closing in on the finish. This would be a massive PR, his first top 10 finish and a huge personal victory for him after a challenging year with less than optimal training. Sure, everyone wants to be on a team with a winner, but this is the kind of shit I live for. A team of burrito eating misfits digging deep to squeeze out the best experience possible during a deranged sufferfest in the mountains. Jamil’s smile boldly stated all of this as he literally sprinted in towards the finish line towards his son and ran the final 100 meters with him in hand before kissing the coveted rock.

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Post-race Team Mashed Potato Burrito sat in a stooper in an alcove just off the road. We drank gin from a flask delivered by one of Mike’s groupies and traded more stories from the last 29 hours of life that seemed to be both infinite and pass by in a flash. And yes, we did finally take a looooong nap (6 hours) followed by a unanimous decision to get our grub on with, you guessed it, another burrito.

 

Waking up in a massive sleigh shaped bed at a 5-star resort was the last thing on my mind when I froze my running bum off sleeping on the ground under 5 billion stars in Bears Ears National Monument this spring. But that is exactly (or partially) how I found myself at Deer Valley resort in June to attend Outdoor Press Camp among some of the leading editors, writers and brands in the outdoor industry.

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The inclusive and intimate event is a direct contrast to summer OR and gives attendees an actual opportunity to dig into the finer details of presenting brands via one on one meetings that are much longer than 15 minutes, ample time to socialize (and sit) during gourmet catered meals and an entire afternoon off to play outside and test gear. I even got to ride the chair lift UP the mountain to go for a run!

Fellow freelancer Aaron Bible tipped me off about the event (totally joking that it might be a nice way for me to get a shower since I’m “homeless” aka living a beautiful life of freedom out of my Jeep Wrangler) and connected me with event coordinator Kenji Haroutunian. It only took one email exchange between Kenji and I to realize that I needed to be a part of second annual event, not only for my background in the running industry and trail specialization, but because of my time spent living in Bears Ears. Kenji sits on the Board of Directors for the Access Fund, and played an instrumental role in growing and shaping Outdoor Retailer into what it is today. Given the media invite list Kenji took advantage of the opportunity to integrate the very timely issue of public lands, and specifically Bears Ears, into the event in order to inform the media with balanced viewpoints and access to voices and leaders at the forefront of the issue including…….Politics aside, we both felt that despite Bears Ears prevalence in the outdoor media, the stories, sources and even visuals that are being pushed out are largely the same. He gave me the opportunity to present a slide show with some of my favorite images from exploring Bears Ears while sharing my story about what it’s like to actually be an athlete, writer and activist living on ground zero.

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The opportunity came at an ideal time as REI re-released my original story about my experience “Running To The Sunrise” in Bears Ears. While there is nothing I love more than waking up on the ground next to a trail head in the desert as the sun rises over distant peaks, staying at Deer Valley and sleeping in a super comfortable bed during this time felt like an immense treat, the frosting on an already delicious cake.

Getting a chance to listen to the viewpoints of the Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox, President of Outdoor Recreation Thomas Adams, UTE PAC Director Robert Lucero and Tribal Council Member Moroni Benally tossed on the sprinkles and then getting to interact with them and even brainstorm about critical issues with them was washing it all down with a cold beer. Poolside and dressed in my fancy pants, I soaked in the experience more rapidly than high altitude sun rays–fully knowing that this experience was born out of the magic that is the Bear.

During the remainder of the week at Press Camp I enjoyed some serious one on one time with innovation leaders in the outdoor industry. The full attendee list can be found here, and given the topics I cover in my writing and for personal use I especially enjoyed meeting with Altra Running (love at first lace up and I’m picky), Tentsile (tree tents!), Camp Chef (aka my future Dirtbag dream kitchen), Oboz Hiking Boots and Sandals (with a rad design story out of Montana), Ryder Sunglasses (lens technology is on point for trail running), Swiss Army Knife/Victorinox (I’ll be cutting cheese, wind shields and brush like a pro), CamelBak (primo fitting hydration solutions) and Boulder Denim (life changing since I never wore jeans until now–these are like yoga pants).

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When I wasn’t in meetings I immersed myself into “resort life” to fully recover and rest up for upcoming big training blocks in the mountains which meant indulging in all of the amazing food, max pool time and even getting a pedicure with Oboz and the other ladies attending the event.

I left Press Camp with a much richer experience than I have ever had at a trade show and the creative gears in my head had enough time to properly churn and come up with future project ideas. The trip to Park City marked the last official destination in my insane 4 week travel/event line up: Bears Ears Gu Media Trip at the end of May, New Hampshire for the U.S. Mountain Running Championships, drive from new Hampshire to Boulder, Creede and CO to race with a donkey and write about it. In all I traveled through 13 states this month and ran in 9 mountain ranges. I have more stories to write than I have hours in 7 days, a smile on my face, a Swiss Army suitcase packed with sick gear to ensure I’m ready for anything and TONS of new friends. But you know what I left Park City thinking about the most–I need to get back to Bears Ears. There is much work to be done there both politically and personally. It is no longer a mystery why I continue to feel called to return. Going to Bears Ears is going home.

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I looked at my once caged mind from the other side of the fence.

On my first attempt running up the Bears Ears I saw nothing but the blank white wall of a blizzard and strong winds slapping me in the face. It matched how I felt that February morning–cold, alone, sad and blind to everything in front of me and behind me. Today, I reached the plateau greeted by sunshine and an almost alpine world filled with spring flowers, chirping birds and views into endless new trails to take into the horizon. The scene matched my current state of mind–warm, content, free, beautiful and open to endless possibility. Knowing that every direction is mine…

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“In many so-called primitive cultures it is a requirement or tribal initiation to spend a lengthy period of time alone in the forests or mountains, a period of coming to terms with the solitude and non-humanity of nature so as to discover who, or what, one really is—a discovery hardly possible while the community is telling you what you are, or ought to be.”–Alan Watts

In fact the other side is far more beautiful than I could imagine that stormy day when I yelled to the sky, “What am I doing here?” as it threw icey snow in my face, taunting me, jesting back, “You can run….but you cannot hide…you will suffer…alone.” And it was actually the most alone I have ever been in my life. 30 years of siblings, roommates, relationships, dogs were now replaced with complete solitude. I did not make human contact with anyone for a day. No one except my parents had any clue where I was (and even then they were unsure about the location of this Bears Ears place). To add insult, my food and water kept freezing and I ate four days of dinner rations in one meal (I forgot how hungry running and being cold make me). Despite the self-induced suffering, I kept running all over the place–up the snowy pass, down the highway, in and out of dead end singletrack–crying, laughing and trying to salvage an experience of some kind for the story I was writing at the time. It seemed highly unlikely that I would ever return to such an inhospitable and unwelcoming place, let alone write about it. But then the circles began and I found myself repeatedly returning to Bears Ears without much premeditation. It all came back to me….

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The March full moon rose above the winding bumpy Moki Dugway when dawned on me where I was going on a spur of the moment climbing trip. Eventually the backlit Bears Ears filled the frame of my front window, and although there was no sunlight and I was not actually running, I cried out at the spirits above. After a few days of crack climbing, shenenigans and a run to The House of Fire (a route I originally intended to cover solo just two weeks prior) the second coming to Bears Ears felt like warmer ironic redemption as I danced down the trails with the biggest smile on my face.  No longer alone or cold, but rather surrounded by sunshine and new friends, I marveled not only at the rich history of the area, but at the deep realization that this place is still very much spiritually alive.

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Top photo–new friend and big wall climbing badass Lizzy Scully (Photo by Steve “Doom” Fassbinder).
Morgan Sjogren, House of Fire, Mule Canyon, Bears Ears NM, UT

Morgan Sjogren, House of Fire, Mule Canyon, Bears Ears NM, UT PC: Andrew Burr

On Easter Sunday I rose for the third time in the monument and finally ran up the Bears Ears plateau into an unexpected alpine world hidden high above the red rocks and canyons of the desert below. It was another solo mission but this time I did not feel alone. Instead I felt, for the first time in months, a strange sense of home. That familiar feeling when you awake and can make coffee on autopilot, stretch out and smile because it’s “church of sunday long run” and take your time to sip your brew and prep for said run because you are cozy, confident and content.

I smiled throughout the climb, sang songs in my head, ate cookies, bushwhacked up the actual Bears Ears, splashed in the mud puddles that are the remnants of that February blizzard. I let the miles come to me and slip away quickly, knowing full well that anything worthwhile will fly free and return in a new form with untold stories waiting to be shared. I stood inside the Bears Ears and let the wind leaned in to whisper something faintly nostalgic like returning home to a warm meal, the crackling of a wood stove fire,  an embrace from your lover, your dog wiggling its tail like mad when you walk through the door. Sometimes our home chooses us.

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I finally feel the constant buzz of being a displaced outcast with a spinning head and a broken heart dissipate.

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I sit on the floor and on the ground outside for hours, the longest stretch of stillness for me in months (many months). I allow the weight of gravity to hold me in place. I sip Gin and Tonics while painting the brightest glittering psychedelic desert scenes I can dream up to take myself into an almost mushroom like trance. I write and face the raw honesty of my own black words against the white screen. I finish that goddamn book that I’ve been carrying like an extra weight for months. For now I am far far away from the problems and pain of all those yesterdays that never seem to get better. Real solitude is an essential component of life for the creative mind.

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Eclectic, random and isolated tiny homes in the desert are seeking me. I may be a nomad, but everyone needs a space of refuge to call home, even if only for a weekend. This one, out of them all perhaps suits me best. It is so hand-made that not a single board, line, pipe, window or painted wall inside is straight. (Evil spirits travel in straight lines is one of my favorite zen proverb. Or did I just make that up?) There are old drawers rudely hammered together as makeshift panels to create the illusion of rooms in a single wide that features a broken toilet and heatless bathtub inside the kitchen. Perfectionism be damned. There’s a quirky and fearless charm about the place—emerald green walls dotted with constellations of white stars, white twinkling lights strewn around the ceilings (which are so low that even my head nearly touches), children’s paintings tacked in the corners and hand painted artwork on the very trailer itself professing simply, “I love Castle Valley” and “Love.” Which is the actual draw of this place to begin with. To be here is to receive a giant hug from the panoramic wonders of this valley—Castleton, the Rectory, the Nuns, the Priest and the Convent viewed out the front window. Porcupine Ridge out back and the La Sal mountains up the road.

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When night falls the moon is so bright that no lights are needed to cook burgers over the campfire that faces Castleton–a real life palace surrounded by a magic kingdom fit for for a dirtbag queen. The blustery wind ignites drippings of bacon grease into sizzling  fireworks–a reminder that everything that falls away from us will return yet someday, in a new more spectacular form.

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Keep the hope alive.

Run, love, laugh around towers in the sky.

Make the darkness a mirror to your light.

Set your dreams off in flight,

beneath the pink moon,

your life ignites in bloom.

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▲ //I drank the cool fizzy pleasure of making the whole damn desert my canvas;
splashing it with color, drawing crooked lines in the sand and embracing the imperfections that come with truly being free. I ate cake for breakfast, spiked my vodka with pickled tears, watched the world flash past my stillness through Neon colored lenses, threw glitter in the dirt. I found a place to call home in my own body. I turned on the channel to my mind’s eye. I tended to my garden of clouds and stars in the sky. I fell asleep standing up, ready to awake at any moment and run towards my delicious dust storm life.//▲