The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir



May 29, 2019

Practice Resurrection

Trail running in the desert can break your body, mind, and soul, but as one priest finds out, it can also reveal new life on the other side of death.


Christian Hawley

My theologian of choice, Wendell Berry, once wrote, “As soon as the generals and politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign marking the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox, who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.” Those last two words make for a great mantra, and on Saturday, September 22, 2018 in the cathedral of the hills that is Davis Mountains State Park, 71 of us got plenty of chances to practice resurrection.

A race volunteer yells up to the Primitive Loop aid station, “Somebody, tell Travis I got a woman down here whose IT band has locked up pretty bad and we might have to stretcher her out.”

The Primitive Loop aid station marks mile 26 of Spectrum Trail Racing’s Sky Island 50 kilometer course. The six foot tall, surfer-haired Travis wears his Texas Parks and Wildlife uniform like an REI Instagram model, but his smile fades as he realizes he already dispatched his backcountry response team for another downed runner. Travis’s conundrum reminds us all that death and pain are part and parcel of the resurrection practice.

Click on the image to access an interactive Strava route map.
*This route was created using Strava Route Builder. The actual course distance is closer to 30.2 miles with approximately 4,300 feet of elevation gain.

It’s me, Charles. You buried my dad a couple of years ago at St Matthew’s.

The pain began earlier that morning as the race started long before sunrise at the historic Indian Lodge. We, runners, climbed out of the camping area via the Skyline Drive trail. A slow mass of determined humanity churned up switchback after switchback illuminated by headlamps in the mist. The sound of trekking poles tinking against the volcanic rock recalled the sound of pickaxes in the hands of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who carved out the trail eighty years prior. The act of memory recalls its own kind of resurrection, and as I toiled up the mountain with my comrades in labor, I could not help but bring back to life the stories of the boys of CCC companies 879, 881, and 1856.

In the Indian Lodge parking lot, runners take their marks for the start of the Sky Island Trail Race.

Through the inky cold and rain, we stumbled and strove across the balds of the Davis Mountains. Down we dove to Fort Davis, the nineteenth-century military post, and just before we bottomed out into the parade field, I noticed a plaque entitled “Fiddlers Green.” The immortalized poem began, “Halfway down the trail to hell in a shady meadow green,” and it continued with a hardscrabble description about the final resting place of cavalrymen and horses. Ft. Davis, being host to the 9th and 10th Cavalry (the famous Buffalo Soldiers), erected the plaque in their honor, but for all of us on that morning trail, it felt like a portent of the miles to come. I ran with death through the shady meadow green, but life surprised me yet again as I made my way Hospital Ridge to the Skyline aid station.

The author cracks a smile on the other side of the tomb that is the 50k finish line.

“Way to go, Padre. Keep it up!” came the voice from behind the snack table. “It’s me, Charles. You buried my dad a couple of years ago at St Matthew’s.”

Downshifting hard from trail runner to parish priest, I stammered out, “I hardly recognized you, Charles, with the beard and all. What in the world are you doing out here, and how’s your mom?”

“My wife is running the 25k, so I thought I’d help out. Mom’s been living the gypsy life since dad died, but I think she’s ready to settle down again in Austin. Here, have a shot of pickle juice, and we’ll swing by St. Matt’s as soon as we get mom settled in her new routine.” From funerals to aid stations, life continues to emerge from the valley of the shadow of death. Practice resurrection.

As an Episcopal priest, the process of resurrection takes on a particular shape for me. Modeled after Mark’s gospel, it begins with a challenging and meaningful journey with friends and strangers before giving way to a solitary and painful death. Then comes the long descent into hell, and an interminable time in the tomb. Eventually, by the grace of God, one climbs back out of the land of the dead to emerge into a new life, celebrated by breaking bread with friends and strangers once again. For me, desert trail races participate in that resurrection process.

As I finished the Skyline Loop, I turned my face toward the Primitive Loop knowing that death and the tomb laid ahead. Solitary pain thrummed in the background, but in the fore bloomed a watered desert. An ocotillo, which days before presented as a dried brown stalk of thorny torment, now erupted with fresh leaves from every square inch.   Practice resurrection.

Never mind, the IT band lady is going to press on!

A long, steep climb through a notch in a plateau brought me to a lush, rolling loop of Mexican Feather Grass and Little Blue Stem. For the next six miles, I enjoyed views of the MacDonald Observatory, the deeper Davis Mountains, and eventually, an opposing glimpse of Indian Lodge, glimmering in the morning dew like some far off city on the hill. My legs died on that loop as well. What began as running and power hiking gave way to power shuffling and walking. As I finished the loop, I joined Ranger Travis at the Primitive Loop aid station.

A second shout emanates from a pony-tailed aid worker, “Never mind, the IT band lady is going to press on!”

I look at Travis, raise my eyebrows, and comment, “I had an IT band lock up on me a decade ago in the hills of east TN, and they had to cart me off the course. That woman is a badass.” Travis’s affable smile returns as he shakes his head in the affirmative, also clearly relieved he did not have to radio for a second response team. Having taken my fill of Pringles, pickle juice, and water, I start back down the trail toward Indian Lodge and the finish, but it feels more like a descent into hell.

Backcountry first responders tend to a runner who was stretchered off the course.

I literally hear wailing and gnashing of teeth. The young woman with the IT band, somewhere up ahead, fights through her pain and frustration in an uncomfortably vocal manner. I half expect Virgil to appear at my side to illuminate her sins because this descent feels like a missing chapter in Dante’s Inferno. I catch the IT band lady a mile later, and I give her my utmost respect and heartfelt encouragement. She manages a stoic nod, and adds the usual getting-passed-phrase of “Good job.”

Anything after mile twenty feels like time in the tomb to me, and time in the tomb moves according to its own rules. The sandy-bottomed creek bed at the base of the hill stymies my every step, and I think I’m shuffling along at fifteen-minute miles. Yet a quick glance at my watch reveals me scooting along the trail at ten-minute miles. Similarly, I feel like I’ve just eaten, but it’s already been thirty minutes since my last snack. After six hours of pickle juice and Snickers, my gastrointestinal tract waves the white flag. I force a few Gatorade Blocks past the nausea, but a reckoning awaits at the ranger station bathroom a mile ahead. I hit bottom in the bowels of the concrete lavatory. I have no idea how long I’m in that dark, silent place, but when I emerge, at least two people have passed me, including the IT band lady.   Practice resurrection.

The stoic determination of the IT band lady as she finishes the 50k course.

Practice has never made me perfect, but it has always made me better. Practicing hill repeats every Wed morning gives me the strength and confidence to take on the final two thousand feet of elevation change on this course. Practicing the little resurrections in an ultramarathon gives me the strength and courage to take on the rest of life. Loved ones die, communities wither, and carefully crafted plans go down the drain. The best way I know to bounce back from those moments is to practice resurrection, to talk to aid station workers, to notice ocotillos, and to eat a snickers before the home stretch of the Indian Lodge Loop.

I pass the IT band lady again on the final descent, once more acknowledging her iron will. A rudimentary arch in the service lot of Indian Lodge marks the finish line. Someone rings a cowbell as I come down the final stretch, while kids and dogs look up from their play to cheer me across the line. There are no medals or corporate sponsor gift bags, just a hard-earned trucker hat for my efforts. I kiss my wife and high five some of my running club friends. Looking around, I smile at the scene. It’s not exactly broiled fish on the shores of the sea of Galilee, but this post-resurrection experience isn’t far off. I gather with friends and strangers for some wood-fired pizza and swap miraculous stories. The IT band lady, Oksana, finishes ten minutes later. Practice resurrection.

Trail runners breaking bread post resurrection.

Cover Photo: 50k racers make their way up the Skyline Drive Trail at Davis Mountains State Park.


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Sep 25, 2019

A New Home for Mountain Biking in India

The first mountain biking competition in Ladakh is a symbol for the youth culture to ride big and dream bigger.



Tenzin Jamphel

I have come a long way from wondering what a “dual suspension” bike is, to organizing the very first Mountain Bike festival in Leh, Ladakh, my home in the Himalaya. It has only been two and a half years since I first picked a Scott XC mountain bike based purely on the brand name and the appealing neon colour. My knowledge of that bike was limited to it being just an expensive cycle. Fast forward to the present situation, where I have been tucked up in my bed for weeks due to a jump gone wrong while riding a “dual suspension” bike. My passion for this growing sport has gotten the better of me, or so it would seem.

Vilayat Ali on the newly built Pump track in Leh, Ladakh.

The dream of the first mountain biking event in Ladakh was envisioned by many riders who had visited this mountainous region in Northern India in the past. Vinay Menon, India’s pioneering free-rider, who had made quite a few rounds to the Ladakh mountains in the past few years, was excited about the prospect of bringing the first-ever event to life and exposing an entirely new generation to a sport that he and I both love. Vinay honored us by getting his hands dirty to build the tracks for the competition.

Vinay Menon demonstrating a jump for the spectators.

Some might say the event location is on sacred ground. I acquired use of the land, which the locals refer to as “Disko Valley”, from a local monastery. Although at first glance the land appeared to be nothing more than a dump area filled with trash and shattered glass bottles, I could see past all of that to the true potential of the space. My company, which I co-founded with two of my friends Tundup Gyatso and Urgyan Skaldan, is an MTB-based travel company in Leh – hence the name Unexplored Ladakh. My colleagues and I held high hopes for the local riding culture and the sport to become something bigger. Our initiative started to gain attention when an MTB magazine from China showed interest in us and decided to support us in manifesting our vision. And to our luck, the local tourism department felt the same and decide to aid us in funding this event.

Rinku Thakur on a final Downhill race run.

The idea was to transform this barren land into a “skills” bike park that would essentially become a playground for the locals to come to get an understanding of the sport. By making this park inclusive to all ages and genders, who hoped to aid in developing a strong MTB culture in Ladakh.

A local girl rides the Pump course.

The very first mountain biking festival in Ladakh represents the changing times in Ladakh’s social structure. It is a physical representation of the changing mindset of the youth here and the possibilities of seeing a bigger picture rather than following the status quo. The main idea for this event flourished with the specific goal of encouraging the locals, especially the younger generation, to get involved in this sport and also to develop the region into a top mountain biking destination in the country.

Junior competitors racing on the Downhill track.

When I first dropped in on a full-speed ride down one of the newly built trails, I couldn’t help but wonder why we did not do this earlier. We have an abundant supply of landscape that you could say is perfectly designed for mountain biking and yet any seed of a riding culture has been repressed until now. Today, preparations for the festival are in full swing with Vinay’s helpful hands and knowledge guiding us along in building the Downhill track and also a Pump track. I would have never imagined this in Ladakh.

Winners of the Downhill race stand at the podium.

The festival is a two-day event consisting of multiple competitions and workshops. It stands as an introductory event leading up to other prominent events this season like the Suru Boulder Fest, Ladakh Marathon and The North Quest Challenge. Next to these more established events, I can’t help but feel a little intimidated, given the fact that we are the new players in the festival lineup and also of the nature of our sport within the hierarchy of sports in India.

The first day of the event is purely based as an introduction of the sport to the locals. We also teach MTB essentials like bike maintenance and basic repair knowledge. The second day is focused more on the competition side of things with a short-track Downhill competition open to both local and outside riders, and a Pump track challenge held as well.

A glow of excitement rushes through me as I write this, as I can still picture one particular young kid riding his bike with immense joy on one of our brand new Downhill course features. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him tackling a giant, scary jump in a few years.

Urgyan Skaldan on a final Downhill race run.

I personally take a tremendous amount of pride in the fact that I did not even know how to adjust my saddle post a few years back and now I am one of the first generation riders in Ladakh, which now has its very first MTB festival. This growing community of riders represents the possibility of a thriving culture in Ladakh in the coming years that I believe will take the Mountain Biking circuit in the country by storm in the next few years.

Learn more about Tenzin’s efforts to build a thriving MTB culture in Ladakh

Feature Image: Vinay Menon catches air on the Downhill race track

Photos by Praveen Jayakaran.

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