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“M” Possible

Maybe this time...

Maybe this time...

Nineteen minutes…  It has become my four-minute mile, my El Dorado, my white whale.  Every time I peek through my apartment’s solitary window, I see the trail up the “M” hill that presides over the town, unmoving and unmoved.  Its serenity taunts me.

Someday soon, the stars will align.  A light snow will cover all of the icy patches.  A tailwind will hasten my every step.  My footing will be sure and my gait strong.  The trees will come and go just a little bit faster.  The hill will feel just a little bit smaller.  I’ll reach the last switchback where the wooden bench finally comes into view, and my watch will read 18:15…18:16…18:17.  With renewed but restrained hope, I’ll charge ahead.  Each second will remove another pound from my pack until I’m racing, weightless, against the clock, against myself.  I’ll reach the bench at the top of the hill – the man-made reminder of failure after failure – and check my watch with the same innocent enthusiasm as each time before; only this time, I won’t be disappointed.  “18:56,” it will read.

Lo, the City of Gold!

I’ll ditch my headphones, and Van Halen (Hagar years, of course) will trumpet my arrival.  I’ll rest on my plywood throne and survey my newly-conquered kingdom.  I will become its beauty.  It will become my strength.

This, faithful Cacambo, is truly the best of all possible worlds.

Once satisfied, I’ll coast down to the trailhead by way of the easy descent on the other side of the hill.  Each tree I pass will bow in my presence.  Each pebble I approach will scuttle away from my shadow.  When I reach the point where the tough trail diverges steeply up to the summit, I’ll pause for just a minute to reflect on my hard-earned victory.  Then I’ll put my head down and hike back to the top.

Eighteen minutes…  It has become my Shangri-La, my Holy Grail, my nineteen minutes…

The reward at the top of the hill.

The reward at the top of the hill.

Climbers are constantly dreaming about the next big expedition; runners are always looking ahead to the race on the horizon; skiers fantasize about that historic powder day; cyclists meditate on every mile of next Saturday’s century.  Those are the big days, the campfire climaxes, and the medals on the wall.  They exist to motivate and to celebrate, but they can only be as great as the sum of their parts.  Those parts are built and perfected on the “M” trail.

The “M” trail – so named for the 250 ft. painted-rock “M” that overlooks Bozeman– is a trail loop that ascends the hill up to the giant letter.  A decision must be made once you leave the parking lot – take the right fork up the steep ridge or take the left fork and switchback for a mile and a half up the easier side.  Either way will afford a decent hike to the top and a spectacular view of Bozeman and the surrounding mountains.  As if all of that weren’t enough, the hill is, quite literally, right outside our window, and the close proximity has contributed to its becoming my extra-Hyalite proving ground.  On days when I’m not climbing, I’ll load my backpack with some training weight and hike laps up to the “M.”  Sometimes, I’ll take it easy, just grateful for the exercise and the chance to get outside.  Sometimes, I’ll bust it hard and gun for the mythical nineteen-minute barrier.  Usually, it’s a little bit of both; always, it’s revitalizing.

The Kennesaw crew on race day.  Jack, me, Bill (Dad), Andrew (brother), and Dave -- Rock/Creek Stump Jump '09

The Kennesaw crew on race day. Jack, me, Bill (Dad), Andrew (brother), and Dave -- Rock/Creek Stump Jump '09

The home training field is an important thing to find.  I need a place where I can go to focus more on the activity than on the setting.  I need a place where I can go to focus more on nothing than on anything.  I need a place like the red trail at Nashville’s Percy Warner Park where I know exactly which tree I need to pass to ensure that I’ve run farther without stopping than I did the last time I was there (often known as “yesterday”).  I need a place like Atlanta’s Kennesaw Mountain where my dad and his friends have run every single Saturday since as long as I can remember.  Dad’s a veteran of two New York City Marathons, one Boston Marathon, thirty-six consecutive Peachtree Road Races, and many, many other classic runs along the way, and he still calls me several times a month just to talk about his most recent Kennesaw session and his plans for the next (often known as “tomorrow”).

"M" pressive, I know.

"M" pressive, I know.

These places get into your soul.  You create memories together; you suffer together; you celebrate together.  When I think of the Mountain Mist 50k, I’m reminded of one hard, hard day and a lot of relief, pride, and pain post-race.  When I think of the red trail, though, I’m reminded of the hard weeks leading up to a race, the easy weeks right after, the deep conversations with training partners, losing myself in iPod books, soaring through my favorite meadow, psyching myself up for the tough climb that I know is right around the corner, and deciding whether or not my next dash past the red blazes will come directly after this one or a few days from now.

Sure, I train for the long races and big climbing trips, but those pay-off days are not the ones that make me a runner, climber, athlete.  I earn those titles on every run that doesn’t come with a t-shirt and on every too-pumped-to-move top-rope session and every time that last push to the top of the hill means I’m hiking down in the dark.

Each day, when the sun rises above the “M,” I glance out my window and say a silent “good morning” to the hill.  I know – and so does it – that one of these mornings will mark the last time nineteen minutes haunts my dreams.  When the following day dawns and the Age of Eighteen Minutes is ushered in, I imagine I’ll start the day much as I’ve done so far: get out of bed, stretch, amble over to the window, and smile at my friend.

1 comment to “M” Possible

  • Smitty

    “M”-pressive! I’m ready to take on the “M” in March. By the way, do you happen to have access to a lazy river up there? Either way, I suspect we’ll still end up drinking more than we should and peeing on ourselves. Can’t wait…