Looking back on my last ten years: A storm, but with rays of light

Looking forward to whatever lies ahead. (Johnny Hunter photo)

At the end of the year, everyone got reflective on the previous ten years. I decided to wait until my next trip around the sun came to pass.

Or something close to it. Next week, I’ll hit one of the milestone birthdays. The Big 5-0. Yeah, I know. A strong fear of ageism gives me pause even mentioning the number, partially because I still feel like a 30-something and admitting otherwise might (erroneously) bring on a bunch of “OK, Boomer” darts hurled my way. I’m Gen-X, ya knuckleheads. Get it straight.

The fact that I’m getting off-track might, indeed, be a sign of advancing age. So, let’s get past all that. Some thoughts that are rolling through my head right now go something like this…

I spent the first full decade of my adult years working lots of hours for low wages, all to build a resume and reputation that would land me a better gig. By age 28, I got that job, and my career got much more interesting and profitable.

That allowed me, in my 30s, to take a whole different path. That decade was all about exploration. I rediscovered by love of hiking and the outdoors and hiked my first 14er. I took up jujitsu and eventually became an instructor. I traveled to China, Thailand and several places in the Caribbean. I won’t lie, my 30s were awesome.

And then my 40s showed up. Like a storm.

That promising job turned sour. My oldest brother – a friend, mentor and confidant – got sick. Then I got laid off and spent four months looking for work just as the country was coming out of its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And my brother ultimately succumbed to cancer. All that happened within 16 months of what was the worst time in my life.

Finding new work meant uprooting from the community I’d lived in for two decades. Even with a new gig, bankruptcy became a real possibility. To this day, the relatively good times, financially speaking, of the prior decade are just a memory. The middle class ain’t what it used to be.

But it wasn’t all bad news. Amid the storm, there were rays of light.

I took up running. And then trail running. I met some fantastic people in the running community and eventually ran my first half marathon. And then seven months later, my first marathon.

I still found time to hike, camp, take road trips and climb mountains. I met more great people in these endeavors, from many states. Tougher, more rewarding ascents followed. And solo road trips and hikes.

In 2011, I was looking for an outlet to write about these experiences, so I started this blog. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything more than an opportunity to practice a craft I love, and hopefully people would get something out of it.

Seven years later, I wrote and published a book. I’m not on any best-seller list, but it is by far the best thing I’ve ever done in my writing career.

As my next milestone approaches, I’ve got plans to do more. And looking back, I know there is value in the struggle. I’ve found that I write better from a place of pain, and if not for the wounds I suffered in my 40s, I’m sure anything I produced would have been less than what it is. I mean, you can appreciate the blues to a point, but you don’t really get it until you’ve suffered. That’s the weird thing about the human condition – those sufferfests might break you, but if they don’t, they will make you. Struggling through the storms gives me a better place to see other people, too. I see your gray areas, your flaws and your tragedies and I get it.

I’ve got this thing in my head that believes age is just a number, that I can run and hike and bike and live out loud and as hard as I want, even when the AARP comes knocking at my door. I’ve always had a bad case of Peter Pan syndrome.

But I’m OK with that. Because it means I’m going to run trails, line up for races, lift hard, camp in the cold, exhaust myself on mountain ridges and seek solace and understanding in lonely, wild places. I’ll keep trying weird foods, especially those in other lands, if I get that opportunity again. And I’ll sit down for a beer or three with just about anybody, because all of us have only so much time, and really, we’re in this thing together, like it or not.

And above all, I want to be a better human. How many crises could I have avoided and how many people could I have blessed by just doing that.

What will the next ten trips around the sun look like? Who knows? Each decade has been vastly different from the others, so I can only imagine that will be the case again.

So off I go, toward the second star on the right and straight on till morning. I don’t know any other way.

Bob Doucette

So I wrote a book… and you can read ‘Outsider’ now

In this post, a little bit of news.

I’ve been writing on this site since 2011. That, in itself, is hard for me to believe. Nearly eight years of writing about the outdoors, running, fitness and whatever else strikes me, I suppose. Before that, there were a couple more years on the blogosphere at the new-defunct Out There blog on newsok.com.

In the midst of all of this, I’ve been working on another, longer-term project, one that’s finally ready to be read. It’s a book, titled “Outsider: Tales from the road, the trail and the run.”

I’ll dispense with the more cliché descriptions of what this work means to me. And yeah, I’ve had a hard time coming up with an elevator speech to describe what it is. But I’ll give it a shot here.

When I was young, I loved the outdoors. I can recall many adventures in the mountains, at camp and in a cabin that cultivated a fascination with the mountains and other wild environments. Growing up, I let that stuff slide. But eventually it came back to me, and boy, I needed it.

The book details it pretty well, but I hit a spell when my normally in-control life was anything but. How I pulled out of that nosedive was heading outside, running downtown streets or wooded trails, hiking in the hills, climbing mountains and taking road trips across the West. I learned a lot about myself, about life, and about God in those times. I wrestled with some tough questions. And I met some fantastic people along the way, each one of them making my life that much richer.

Scenes for this happen in my hometown, in the High Plains and in the Rockies, among other spots. All of them hold a special place for me, and there are some specific moments that will be burned into my memory for as long as I live.

I think a lot of you will be able to relate. How many of you use running to battle personal demons? Or head into the wilderness to quiet your mind, sort things out and recharge? If that describes you, we’re birds of a feather, my friend.

I’ll cut to the chase: I hope you buy it, read it and enjoy it. Hopefully we can start a few conversations. You’ll read my stories, as well as those of some folks I know. Maybe you can give me a few tales of your own.

“Outsider” is available in paperback and on Kindle. Pick up a copy, have a read and tell me what you think. And thanks – not only for giving a book a read, but for being here on this site through the years. We’ll see ya out there.

Bob Doucette

When life was falling apart, it was running that put me back together

Me and Mike on Mount Elbert. I miss this dude.

I got into an online discussion with a friend who was trying to weigh her desire to join her running buddies in a longer road race versus the time commitment needed to train for it. She’s a busy gal, with a full-time job, lots of family around and plenty of things to worry about.

Something she said struck me. She said that when she runs, it clears her head. And that over the past year, it may have saved her. “I think I would have fallen apart without it,” she admitted.

That resonated with me. I’ve had similar thoughts, sometimes recently, and it became even more clear as a dreaded anniversary crept near.

Six years ago, my oldest brother died. And when everything settled down and I was left to my own thoughts, it was the alone time pounding the pavement or coursing through wooded trails that pulled me from an abyss.

Running may have saved me, too.

***

Mike and I were close. Some of it had to do with the fact that we shared a number of interests. We loved the mountains. Fishing for trout was a favorite, and later on, I got hooked on climbing Colorado’s high peaks after hearing his tales of high mountain summits. We climbed a few peaks together, including my first three 14,000-footers, and made a thing of it with all the brothers – Mike, Steve, and myself – are few years back.

From left, Mike, me and Steve on the summit of Quandary Peak, Colo.

Mike and I were also gym rats. I bumbled around the weight room with a little success while he mastered the art of weight training and bodybuilding. Naturally, we’d talk about all things lifting, and more often than not I’d be the one doing the listening as he offered tips and told of his experiences. Years later, I still can’t sniff the PRs he managed on the big lifts.

But I keep plugging away, and sometimes I’ll learn something new or set my own PR. Instinctively, I look around for my phone, thinking about shooting him a text or a phone call to talk about it. But that gets shot down pretty quick.

Shit. I can’t call Mike. I can’t call him because he’s gone.

***

Around the time when Mike was diagnosed with cancer (it was a blood disease similar to leukemia), other crises were afoot. My job was going down the crapper, and as he got sicker, my own prospects worsened. In January of 2011, I flew to Denver to visit him, not knowing if he’d make it for the next few days or if he’d pull through. A couple days after arriving, Mike grew stronger.

But then I got a call. My employer had a layoff, and I was caught in it. Twelve mostly good years there were over. It’s a hell of a thing to learn you’re on the street via a long-distance phone call from a hospital hallway.

The silver lining was being able to spend more time with Mike. I hoped he’d pull out of it, recover and then we’d be back at it, hiking up mountains and traveling the West. But it was not to be.

Mike’s condition eventually won. His death was slow – agonizingly so – and from everything I saw, miserable. Cruel, even. The whole family was there when he passed. The final moments unleashed our sorrows in a flood of tears and hugs, all of us hating the fact that he was gone yet glad he wasn’t suffering anymore. In the hours and days following Mike’s passing, we shuffled from here to there, buying clothes for the funeral, heading to the church to say our last good-byes, and then settling into the finality of it all.

A few days later, after being out of work for four months, I got a call. The guy who is now my boss, Tim, wondered if I’d like to interview for a job in Tulsa. I said yes, and we arranged for an interview time. I got the job, which necessitated a move. So I moved up to Tulsa while my wife Becca stayed in our soon-to-be ex-hometown east of Oklahoma City to get our house ready for sale. I’d come back on the weekends, then drive back to Tulsa before my Monday shift began.

During the week, I stayed at my sister-in-law’s house in a Tulsa suburb. She and her family had moved to Texas and were trying to sell their Oklahoma home, and they kindly let me stay there until we found a place of our own. The house, somewhere short of 3,000 square feet, was empty – no furniture, no TV, nothing. I made my home in the master bedroom, a cavernous space where I occupied a tiny sliver, sleeping on an air mattress and playing Angry Birds on my phone or reading a book when I got home from work. Aside from the job, I had a lot of alone time, time to worry about the future and mourn Mike’s death.

Before work, I’d head to the gym, and then two miles down the road I’d go to a local park that had a gravel trail a little over a mile long. Work was a great distraction, but my demons were there in that empty house on those long nights after work. I fought back on the trails. Running, it seemed, drove them away.

***

Running became a sorely needed habit — and refuge — during one of the more challenging periods of my life.

I’d gotten into a running habit before Mike got sick, but things took off once I moved to Tulsa. It was cheap – the price of shoes, socks and some tech clothes. It turned out to be a great way to explore my new hometown. Every slow, lumbering run was interesting. I’d see something new, work up my miles and get a little faster.

Not long after, I discovered a park that had a huge network of trails that ran wild through wooded hills that were left as close as possible to their natural state. I’d run plenty on pavement, but this trail running thing was brand new. I learned that trail runners were different. Most runners obsess over mile times, distances and splits. Trail runners get into vertical gain a little, but mostly run hard, have fun and replace all the calories they burned with burritos and beer. This was something I could get into.

For a brief period, I ran with a weekly run group, but most times I explored the trails by myself – in the furnace of the Oklahoma summer, in the rain and mud, and even in the snow. I’d run myself ragged on big hills, trip over tree roots and rocks and go through the painstaking process of tick-checks. I spied snakes, lizards, deer and hawks. Squirrels and rabbits, too. I watched sunsets through the trees, breathed in the scents of fresh redbud blooms and listened to cicadas blast their noisy calls on sweltering summer days. I loved running with friends, but these were experiences I mostly had on my own.

These were the times I’d think. Sometimes pray. I’d rage at God for how Mike died, then calm down and express gratitude that I was still healthy, and able to enjoy these runs on the trails when so many others couldn’t or wouldn’t.

I’d like to tell you that I found peace and healing inside the folds of a new church congregation, but it never worked out that way for me. Too many places of worship were too busy fighting the culture wars for my taste. But I found God anyway. God was in those woods, tolerating my griping, reminding me of my blessings, and listening in. Being there when I was unlovable. That sort of thing matters when you reach a point of being a jerk, something I can testify to rather well. Sometimes I’m not the easiest person to be around, prone to poor judgment and selfishness. Things that Mike wasn’t but I was.

Over time, running became bigger. Slow two-mile jaunts around the neighborhood turned into five-milers. And then 10. Or 12. Within a few years, I was knocking out half marathons, 25Ks, and on a bitterly cold November day, my first marathon. The process was one that required some mental toughening, sharpening your mind in the middle of 20-mile training runs, and the day-long recovery periods that followed.

But I found something out there. I found a rhythm, a meditative cadence that cleared my busy mind of the stresses and insecurities that confronted me daily. I’m not one of those crazies who pounds out 80 or more miles a week, or runs insanely long races, or any of that. But I miss it when I stop. Normally I come back from a run feeling spent, and in a good way, like I went to war with my demons, beat them back and stood atop a hill looking at the battlefield when it’s over, me still alive and my foes in retreat. I’m not one to make easy war metaphors; that dishonors real warriors. But when negativity and grief and self-loathing and worry rage at your gates, it feels like a fight. You use the tools at your disposal in order to win.

***

Sunset in the woods at the end of a fun trail run.

Mike wasn’t much of a runner, at least not in his final years. More of a cyclist, a hiker and a lifter. But I think he could appreciate it just the same, like he would after a long day in the mountains or right after coming off the saddle after a 30-mile ride through Denver. He’d get it. He battled through plenty of his own struggles and won them all except for the one that finally claimed him.

I was thinking of Mike at the end of my last trail run. It was a short trip, just a few miles on mostly empty trails near dusk. When I got through and reached the trailhead, the sun was dipping into the horizon, setting the skies and their clouds afire with hues of yellow, orange and red. I snapped a photo with my phone and suddenly got the urge to text it to Mike. Look how beautiful it is out here, dude! And then I’d remember.

But I grinned anyway. I knew that Mike would understand, that he knew running for me was a gift from God, the salve I needed – and still need – in this stage of life. I was sweaty, dirty and spent and more content than I’d ever be, even if only for a few minutes. I was at peace.

I hope my friend decides to do that longer race, mostly because I know where she’s at, and have felt that calming, inner-warmth that comes from a good run.

Bob Doucette

Going fast, slowing down and seeing running as a metaphor on life

Last week I had one of those “running is life” moments. All because I wanted to go fast.

I make it to the trails at least a couple times a week, and that day’s run called for a four-mile loop on some of my favorite stretches of local singletrack.

One trail in particular, called “Ho Chi,” is a ton of fun, especially if you go north. The general aspect of the trail is downhill after you do a brief climb to where it starts.

The start of the fast track. Bombs away!

The start of the fast track. Bombs away!

I’m not sure what got into me that day, but I just had a need for speed. So I bombed down that trail, jumping over boulders and stumps, opening up my stride and just generally tearing it up. There is a great sense of empowerment when you tackle a stretch of trail and beat it into submission.

So for a couple of miles, that’s what I did. Seldom are the times I’ve run that fast. Maybe a few short races. Oh yeah, I was feeling it. I’m not exactly sure why, but I just felt the need to run with aggression. I picked my lines, leaped over obstacles, churned my way uphill and bombed the downhills. It wasn’t quite reckless abandon, but somewhere close to it. “Attacking” the trail might be a good description.

Heading back south, it would be mostly uphill to the summit of Turkey Mountain before a steep quarter-mile downhill section back to the trailhead.

As you might have already predicted, I gassed myself out. All that spunk that powered me through the first couple of miles was gone, eaten up by the hubris and ambition that possessed me during the first stretch. There was no way I could keep up that pace now, and trust me, I didn’t.

I was forced to slow down. The combination of my pace (something I could control) and the terrain (something I could not) changed the game.

In doing so, however, interesting things happened. In the quiet of my now subdued pace, I heard rustling in the leaves. Below me and off trail, an armadillo was rooting around for grubs.

Further down, I noticed an unusual and weirdly awesome shaped tree.

Life takes some interesting turns.

Life takes some interesting turns.

And in the stillness of the moment, I just stopped and listened. The place where I run trails is in the middle of a city, but is large enough that most of the city noises are absent. What I heard was, well, almost nothing. Just the quiet of the woods. That’s a rare thing for most of us. We’re surrounded by the buzzes and clangs of man-made things, the beeps and boops of electronic devices and the din of conversation. If you’re honest with yourself, you probably turn on the TV or a radio at home for no other reason than to have some background noise because the sound of silence so uncomfortable.

I contemplated the contrasts between the first half of this little jaunt to the second, wondering if I gained anything training-wise from going full-boar, only to be slowed to a shuffle by fatigue. The answer was “yes,” but it also sparked another thought.

As corny as it sounds, my workout that day was a tidy little metaphor of my adult life. Trust me on this one, it’s true. Let me explain…

Upon graduating college, I did what a lot of young people do. I got a job. Started a career. Got hitched. I had big dreams, and I worked my butt off at small operations trying to do big things so maybe one day one of those big-boy outfits would notice me. That meant lots of long hours, long weeks and sacrifice for low pay. Eventually I did get noticed by the big boys. I landed a job at a large newspaper, made a name for myself and moved up the food chain.

But as it so happened, the media business is a tough one. And life, not coincidentally, can be pretty rough as well.

A few years back, my personal life took a bad turn. At the same time, a new assignment at work took me from a plum job to crap patrol overnight. And then my oldest brother got sick. Really sick.

I’d like to say that was rock bottom, but it wasn’t. My brother just got sicker, and within a few months I got laid off with about 40-something other unlucky co-workers.

Two months after that, my brother died.

I had worked for years to build a career, build a life, become something successful, but at that moment all I had to show for it was grief, regret and a severance check.

I’d bombed down the path of life, and life – a combination of my own actions and the things that happened outside of my control – found a way to slow me down. Way down. Many things that were so important to me were stripped away. Relationships strained or broken. Oh, and I was broke and jobless. You could say that I was spent, exhausted from the crash that came from a pace so furious, so oblivious, that only the most blind person wouldn’t have seen it coming.

And that’s where the path took another turn. Forced to slow down, regroup and reassess, the world looked a little different, much in the way that the rays of the sun alter the appearance of a ridge, depending on what side of that ridge you’re on. A new job came up, and a new city. A slower pace. In the ashes of the old, new things sprung up, but it’s doubtful I’d have seen them had I not been forced to ease off the throttle.

I’ve been meandering for awhile now, and I really can’t tell you if this metaphor still has me wandering the woods or back at the trailhead looking for the next route to take. I could easily overthink it at this point.

What I do know is that there are times when you need to sprint, but there are also times when you need to stop, breathe and look around. A NASA-built heat shield couldn’t have saved me from a crash, but I have to think in some way I needed to be completely spent, at my wit’s end and emptied before I could truly see and hear.

The trouble with speed is, while exhilarating, it also smears the scenery into a rushing blur, void of details, warning signs and small blessings that might be trampled underfoot by the unwary or the unconcerned.

And speed comes with a price. I know that all too well from races where I’ve gone out too fast, and days like I mentioned earlier where I was fast, and unsustainably so.

So perhaps there is something to be said about choosing not to rush. We all beat a path to build a career, buy a house, start a family, cultivate a reputation and whatnot.

But if and when it’s all ripped away, can you be comfortable in the silence? Or will the silence of the wild open your eyes? This is something I’m still figuring out.

Bob Doucette