Why Do We Do This To Ourselves?

NOTE: This post is the final post in our three-part blog series about the creation of the Redbird Crest 100K.  READ PART 2 HERE.


It’s not that I’m a glutton for punishment.  I’m really not.  Those who have followed Next Opportunity and those who know me personally know that’s not really who I am.  I do put on a bit of a show and like to tease people leading up to races that they are going to fail.  That is all with a big heavy dose of winky face emojis and sarcasm.  Contrary to what I portray a lot of times, I don’t actually revel in the suffering of others.  I don’t relish their pain.  I don’t delight in their sorrow.  I don’t celebrate their failures.

I do, however, seek challenge.  I support it.  I think if you are going to attempt something it should be hard.  The great and wise (albeit fictional) Coach Jimmy Dugan said:

“It’s supposed to be hard.  If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it.  The hard is what makes it great.”

It is my mindset that if you are going to take on a challenge of any kind it should be something that you honestly doubt you can do.  If you have supreme confidence in your ability to complete a given task then it isn’t really a challenge.  If an endeavor is easy, what did you learn about yourself?  What do you take away from an experience that doesn’t challenge you?  How can you improve if you only do things that you already excel at or that you find manageable, to begin with?  How do you find out where your limits are if you never dare to push past them?

Trying out my GoPro skills on the RCT.  They are not good.

That’s why we structure our events the way we do.  We make them challenging for that purpose.  That’s why I choose to compete in races that fit that same mold.  If I just want to see some beautiful country, I will go there.  I will find a trail, and I will run or hike (definitely won’t mountain bike).  But if I want to learn something about myself, if I want to come away better, I will choose a race that I’m afraid of.   I choose races I honestly think I have a healthy shot at failing.

What does all of that have to do with the Redbird Crest 100K?  The answer is everything.

Struggles and Successes

Redbird taught me something after my last trip (which I explored in part 2 of this blog).  Redbird taught me that I was not ready for Redbird.  Redbird taught me that I had grown overly comfortable with the northern Sheltowee Trace and the popular trails of the Red River Gorge.  “Oh you like Red River Gorge with its well-traveled trails, hard packed dirt, and easy access to roads, parking lots, and amenities?” asked the Redbird Crest Trail of me.  “That’s very cute,” she said, “now give this a try!”

I came away bloody.

After my last trip to Redbird, I learned several things.  First, I learned without a doubt that mountain biking is the worst thing ever.  Period.  Sorry mountain bike bros.  Second, I learned that this trail was beyond what I was ready for.  The Redbird Crest Trail system was bigger than me.  In fact, maybe I had gotten a little too big for myself; and I needed Redbird to knock me down a few pegs and bring me back to reality.  

“You’re not as good as you think are,” she said.

My boy, Jesse, cruising over the sand on top of the ridge and admiring the big sky.

I came back three times over the following weeks.  Once with a buddy of mine and we covered probably the easiest and tamest 6 miles of what would become the Redbird Crest 100K race course.  The next time I went down there solo for an unbelievable 18 mile run through a monsoon.  It was unbelievable because I had never run in a rain that heavy before.  I had never run in a rain that lasted that long before.  I’ve lived in Kentucky off and on since I was 18 years old.  Kentucky has bad storms but they rarely last more than 30 minutes.  This particular storm lasted hours.  I couldn’t imagine being wetter.  The forest in that section of the Daniel Boone National Forest is so dense it feels like a rainforest even on the best days.  That day it was a brutal trudge through mud, rock, and sand.  Up, over, and down the ridge again and again with the storm continuing in a relentless assault.

The next time I went down there for a solo run was a better day in terms of weather which made it a different kind of struggle.  In the rain, I was constantly battling that inner voice that just wanted to pity myself and whine internally about how hard everything was.  Running through the storm forced me to focus on relentlessly moving forward.  Just get back to the car!

Now with the sun out on an early fall day, I could focus on the forest, on the trails, and on my own running.  I could pound those downhills and really push the climbs.  I could hit those rolling, sandy sections along the ridgeline hard really pick up the pace as the forest flew by me.  Afterward, I was exhausted AND exhilarated.  I had seen over 40 miles of the Redbird Crest Trail system all told, and I don’t think any one mile is very much like any other.  

Redbird Is Alive

The trail flows along the hillside as it approaches the ridge line here.

It occurs to me now thinking back on experiences I’ve had along the Redbird Crest and those that are still to come that the Redbird District of that forest is alive!  It has a personality, unlike any other forest I’ve ever been in.  It seems to have moods and depending on that mood I might be in for one of the best day or one of the worst days of running in my entire life.  

Over the past several years I’ve not run any set of trails more than the Red River Gorge.  The Gorge is what it is.  It is consistent.  When I go to The Gorge I know what I’m going to get regardless of the weather or time of year.  I sometimes feel like I could run the Rough Trail race courses with my eyes closed I have done them so much.  But Redbird is different.  It’s not just that it is geographically or ecologically different or that it is a newer experience for me.  I know all of that definitely plays a part, but there is a connection with Redbird that I don’t feel with other trails I’ve taken on.  There is a challenge there that doesn’t exist in other trails.

I’m a decent runner.  I’m not great.  I’m not terrible.  I’m alright.  I can hit most trails in central or eastern Kentucky on any given day and put in a good run.  But Redbird.  Redbird still intimidates me.  Redbird still scares me a little.  Perhaps it is the remoteness of the area.  Perhaps it is the rugged terrain which still makes me uneasy even on foot.  None of the race courses I’ve designed give me hesitation the way Redbird does.  I can handle the Big Turtle and the northern section of the Sheltowee Trace.  The Hot Hot Hundred course with its ridiculous elevation profile is manageable given its relatively short distance.  Red River Gorge is familiar to me.  Even The Reaper 30K course with its ever-changing terrain and weird weather doesn’t give me pause.  

But Redbird does.  

I’m not sure I could fully explain the feeling I have toward Redbird even if we made this blog a 10 part series.  What keeps drawing me back there?  Is it the beauty of foothills?  Is it the peaceful quiet?  Is it the fulfillment I get from the extreme challenge?  I don’t know, and the only way I know to go about finding an answer to that question is to keep going back.

The soft gravel road gives you a hint at what lies ahead with a beautiful view of the climb ahead.  What you can't see from down here are the obstacles that lie along the way.

Michael WhismanComment