Out There: Running with purpose
September 15, 2007
ASPEN When he started running again, Zeke Tiernan says he couldnt complete the loop around the Aspen Golf Course without stopping to rest. His friends didnt believe him when he told them. Not Zeke, the state cross-country champion at Aspen High. Not Zeke, the two-time All-American distance runner at the University of Colorado. Two and a half miles? Yes, Tiernan tried to explain, he who used to run 3,200 meters in the time it took most people to take a shower, who used to routinely log 100 miles in a week, couldnt do a measly 2.5-mile run in one stretch. The 400 days he had spent idle between runs had stripped him of all that he had built over so many years. Even someone as prolific, as talented as he was, could lose it all, he realized. The stamina that had propelled him to a 4-minute, 17-second mile when he was in college? Gone. The form that he had so meticulously perfected while running with the Buffaloes, then after college as he trained relentlessly to try and make an Olympic-qualifying mark in the marathon? Vanished. All of it taken from him during that lost year in his life when hed given up interest in the one thing that had so defined him for so long. Subsequently, he says, he lost sight of the person he wanted to be in life. Wandering without purpose: Thats Tiernans summation of those 400 odd days. Hed halted his daily running for a number of reasons the nagging injuries over the years, the self-made pressure to excel, the other things vying for his time, including his career as a teacher and a coach. It wasnt really a conscious decision to stop, Tiernan says, but when he did, he paid for it. To build up takes a long time, says Tiernan, a sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Aspen Country Day School. Once you stop, you lose everything so quickly. He quickly explains that hes not just referring to running. Its the same with anything in life, whatever that may be, whether its finances or a daily routine or work, he says. Whenever you get too far behind, it takes so long to get back to where you were.
Where Tiernan is today is Steamboat Springs, running in a new 50-mile ultra marathon called the Run Rabbit Run. Its the longest race hes ever competed in, and what Tiernan, 31, hopes will be an encouraging step toward his long-term goal: finishing the grueling Leadville Trail 100 next August. Hes already come so far in just a little more than a year since those initial humbling runs last September around the golf course loop the same track where he used to excel as a high school star. In late July, Tiernan cruised to victory in the 16.5-mile Mount Sopris Runoff between Basalt and Carbondale one of the most difficult local running races in the valley. It was his fourth victory in the race, but his first since returning from his self-imposed exile. He followed with wins in Augusts Basalt Half Marathon and the Longhorn Stampede. While encouraging, Tiernan says finish orders dont define his life as they once did. Minutes and seconds even hundredths of seconds, for that matter dont hold as much weight, either. He came back to running for the reasons he first loved it as a young boy, he says, not the ones that made him walk away from it. In all those years of competitive running, hed arguably lost sight of what was important, what was so invigorating about getting on a trail and getting lost for a few hours. In high school, and at CU, Tiernan was surrounded by strong runners, teammates who constantly pushed him. One of his best friends, Christopher Severy, was also arguably his fiercest training rival. The two had pushed each other relentlessly in high school, and then continued their rivalry in college, in the process becoming All-Americans for the Buffaloes. At CU, that was a program where there were a lot of guys training really hard, Tiernan says. Everybody was trying to outdo each other and Chris and I were two of the worst. We would run the most miles, and try to run them as fast as anyone. He could handle it better than me. His body could withstand that training better than I could. Severy could handle seemingly everything running, school, relationships better than most, Tiernan says. He could also see ahead to a life removed from such a competitive environment, something Tiernan wasnt able to do as easily. Before he lost his close friend unexpectedly to a mountain biking accident in 1998, at the tail end of both of their careers at CU, Tiernan says Severy was already talking about going to medical school after college to become a doctor. Severys death was a shot of perspective, but still, Tiernan says he wasnt as quick to want to walk away from the ultra-competitive circles he and Severy had worked so hard to gain entry to. Not even when his body repeatedly told him otherwise.He chased a dream of running in the Olympics all the way until October 1999, before a lingering knee injury made him walk away from top-tier competitive endurance running for good. I did OK, Tiernan says of his failed attempt to run for his country. I got 35th at the national cross-country championships and I was running to try to make an Olympic trials qualifying mark in the marathon, then I got injured That injury, I never really got it diagnosed. I think it was a combination of patella tendinitis and Iliotibial band syndrome both overuse injuries. That was the one big drawback of my competitive career in college is that I was injured a lot, and all of it was because I overtrained. Tiernan started coaching high school track and cross-country in Boulder after that, then moved back to the valley to coach at Aspen under his and Severys old coach, Chris Keleher. There was also a track season at Roaring Fork High in Carbondale, coaching his little brother. Tiernan says coaching other runners became an outlet for his competitive juices, so much so that his personal training began to dwindle. His teaching career also began to cut into his own running. My life started to expand in different directions, he says. I got into teaching, and teaching tends to also be a fairly consuming profession, and takes up a lot of my time and energy. I started to coach also, which is very consuming as well.
Still, despite all the other things that were taking precedence in his life, Tiernan says he never actually planned to stop running. When he did stop, however, he became a worse person for it not the type of vibrant human being, Tiernan says, that Severy had once encouraged him to strive to be. One of the reasons he started running again was actually because of Severy. Tiernan says he was searching for balance in a stressful life, and in doing so, rediscovered a lost love. I was remembering who I was, and how running made me feel, he says. Chris meant a lot to me. I wanted to be the kind of person that he really liked, and I wasnt really doing that when I wasnt running. I was wandering without a purpose, and I certainly wasnt the type of person that Chris would like to be around. If he was going to run again, however, Tiernan says it had to be on his terms. No running to keep up with someone, or to beat the clock. No going against what his body was telling him, like hed done for so many years. No stopwatches, no headphones, and no rigid training regimen other than, once he gained some endurance, to go on one really long run each week. I dont use a watch, and my training schedule is pretty haphazard, Tiernan says. I just want to run because I love being on the trails, I love the experience, I like being alone with my thoughts. If I can run for two, three hours, and not see anyone, thats really cool to me. Its a very contemplative, relaxing thing. I hate to use the word meditative, because Im not at that level, but its kind of mentally cleansing. Ill think about everything. Truly, Tiernan says, training for an ultra marathon like the one he is running today is like competing in a whole new sport. Its running, but not the running he once knew. And thats just the way he likes it. Its a different mindset, a different way to train, he says. Other factors like food and equipment become really important, and your shoes and what water bottle youre going to wear, and even what clothing youre going to wear, just because youre on your feet so long. Its really fun because Im learning a lot. Im just really enjoying the activity of running in that nonpressured environment, without a watch If you had asked me who I was when I was 20 years old and running for CU, I would have said, Im a runner. Today, thats not who I am, its something I do in my life that complements who I want to be. I dont know if Im a better person. Thats a huge leap of faith, but I think I feel better on a day-to-day level. I think Im happier. Im more balanced. Certainly someone an old friend could be proud of. Nate Petersons e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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