My skis and boots arrived on a pallet, along with everything else I owned. Aside from the lightly packed backpack I carried to Minnesota and whatever was in the dog-eared wallet I had since college, my life fit onto a 40×48-inch rectangle of coarse wood and rusty nails. It was simultaneously a sad realization and an exhilarating sight. That previous May, I left Colorado for a vacation and wound up in rehab 1,200 miles away. I’d clawed my way to nearly six months of sobriety and Minnesota, my de facto new home, was beginning to get frosty. I needed my skis.
During my first year on patrol in Colorado, I scrounged together enough scratch to finagle a deal with Pete Wagner, owner and head designer of Wagner Custom Skis, for a pair of planks in his showroom. They were 193 centimeters of pure beauty, navy stripes hugged by dark cherry red buttresses and art deco piping on tip and tail. They arced strong, fast, crud busting turns. With them on my feet and a cross on my back, I had earned entry into the Telluride tribe. When I clicked into them, I felt invincible. When it became clear that in order to learn how to live life sober I would need to stay in Minnesota, my friends who’d been storing my gear in Colorado sent out the pallet. Those Wagners were really all I cared about.
I kneaded in the chinking of my newfound sobriety during my first winter in Minnesota and skied as often as possible, which meant I made a lot of three turn runs on 200-foot hills. Afton Alps was about twenty minutes away from my sober house and I banged a left-footed slarve in “The Ditch” so hard and so often my ruts are probably still there. I went up north to Lutsen in December and didn’t hear my turns for the first time; finally, soft snow. In January, powder hit my face with every slash while storm skiing at Mount Bohemia in Michigan. By comparison to my winters in Colorado, my Midwestern ski season was like one of those hairless, wrinkly cats: odd enough to be captivating. But every day on those hills, every turn on my Wagners, was a reexamination and rejuvenation of my passion for skiing. And a realization that life was far more fun without booze and drugs.
A healthy mixture of stupidity and an I wonder attitude has fueled many of the decisions in my life, even in sobriety. On my 33rd birthday last May, also my sobriety date, I decided that it’d be a swell idea to train for a 50-mile ultra marathon. I had moved back to Colorado two years prior and it just seemed like the Colorado thing to do. I’d made my penance with the mountains for time wasted in tumblers and baggies, but felt I needed one last act to fully cleanse myself of past alcoholic sins. And I wanted to destroy the monster within me that does a great impression of my voice, the inner narrator of self-doubt and shame that reminds me too often of the trauma from my youth. Plus, I wanted to see if I was tough enough to run that far.
I didn’t let the fact that I was not a runner, had only run one organized race in my entire life—a hung-over turkey trot 5k on Lake Shore Drive back in my drinking days—or a general “what the eff am I doing?!” feeling deter me. I stuck to it, achieved a level of fitness I hadn’t seen since college, and actually turned into a runner. And then my knee exploded.
Osteochondritis dissecans. Basically, it’s a pothole at the end of the femur, on the interior of the knee, which develops for reasons unknown. Inside this rut is wad of cartilage and calcium, the body’s version of pothole filler. My filler was jarred loose during the ultra training and, just two weeks before the race, my right knee decided to enter a grapefruit lookalike contest. Overnight, I went from peak physical fitness to one-legged hobbling to and from Goddammit Island, aka the couch. Surgery was the only option. Six months of training went straight down the crapper. But, worse than missing out on the race was the possibility of missing out on ski season, or having to make do with some sad, bunny hill prison of a ski season.
There’s a reason why you don’t see people like me at the starting line of double stuffed marathons. Humans who are 6’5” and 230 pounds aren’t built for ultras, because gravity hates us. Over the summer, I picked up a pair of skis that Pete Wagner and I designed together, specifically for my personality and style, and whose topsheet art—a phoenix feather quill and Irish knots—my sister Kitty designed with her husband Ian. The planks sat at the foot of my bed through summer and fall, the last thing I saw before I fell asleep, the first thing I saw upon awakening. But, because of my runners masquerade, I’d blown the chance to ski them into that same feeling I had during my first winter in Minnesota.
Don’t get me wrong. The running delivered a lot of positive outcomes, fitness, confidence, a new relationship with the mountains, and goal achievement. But training for a 50-miler is mostly about fighting, at least for me it was: fighting through the pain, through the power of no, the voice telling me to stop, the doldrums of training, exhaustion, doubt, fatigue, fighting those fierce mental pathways that too easily lead me to a dark place. I think, in part, I was running away from some of my demons, namely the sexual abuse from my childhood, the shame of carrying that weight alone, and the guilt of years spent looking for answers in whiskey bottles and lines of cocaine.
Two Sundays ago, my physical therapist cleared me to ski. It was a powder day. I took six or seven runs over the course of five hours, nothing but short, zip tied windshield wiper turns on blue runs. I smiled so big and for so long that my teeth nearly got frostbite. Last week, I skinned 3,000 vertical feet in two days and hiked Highlands Bowl in Aspen during the weekend. I have to baby my knee and take a slow, methodical approach rather than letting the throttle go but I am months ahead of the original recovery timeline. And I am finally atop those dream-delivering Wagners. The physical expression of my happiness looks pretty similar to Baptist church pew dancing.
Last Saturday, I picked my way through the rocks at the top of the Bowl. I was stiff, rigid, wrestled against the mountain to find my own cadence. I was bucked and thrown off of the line I thought would suit me best, lurched from the outcome I had played like a movie in my head. But then I took a deep breath and found soft, flowy bumps on the right shoulder above the trees. I let go, released the fight, and turned comfortably into a rhythm outside of myself. I wiggled my way into the woods on handcrafted turns made by hope and freedom and a realization: neither fighting nor running solves anything for me. It’s all in the turn.