“If you think there’s some sort of catharsis in putting your body against its physical limits, consult a therapist. If the therapist couldn’t talk you out of it, read on.”
-Chris Hemphill, [blog]
The athletic spirit is what drives us to “read on.” We journey through life, trying to make each new chapter better than the last, continually learning from footnotes, epilogues, and appendices. Naturally though, the Hero’s Journey is riddled with obstacles. Physical and emotional pain take over while the dreamier side of life starts to fade. Important goals start to seem impossible. But here, at this place, the practical athlete realizes the only way to customize the ending -- your dream -- is by crossing the threshold and start “pounding the pavement.” Trail runner Chris Hemphill from Birmingham, Alabama, prefers dirt.
Chris confronts these murky, long-winded journeys with respect and good humor.
“Most of the races I do are trail races,” Chris says, because “trail races feel more indie. Every trail race has a horrible website that looks like it was done in GeoCities. You don’t have all the chip timers. You don’t have an aid station every mile. It’s a lot more gritty and, honestly, more exciting for me.”
Chris became interested in running for the same reason most do -- to lose weight. He showed me his “before” pictures; I remained unconvinced. But within him, the spirit of the athlete was gaining momentum. It was time to stop feeding into his doubts and start feeding his goals instead.
“Getting into running is all about the people you have around,” Chris says. “I was doing this training run in Mountain Brook, and I got lost. I was out of water and almost called a cab to go home. But these people found me and let me run with them back to Homewood (neighboring suburb), and we became friends.”
As it turns out, connecting dreams to reality is this group’s mission. Team in Training (TNT) hosts weekly runs to raise money for Leukemia. “Since they were experienced runners, I just started running with them,” Chris says. “I thought it was only a half-marathon I was training for, but it ended up being a full.” Chris completed his first ever marathon, a full marathon, in early November 2014, just eleven months after his inaugural New Year’s Resolution to run only a half-marathon.
“Something I would tell anyone who wants to run a marathons is, I hope you like pain,” Chris offers; “I hope you’re adjusted to suffering.” A subtle, invigorating tone blankets his voice, a tone that can only result from a long history of experience. But the glow in his face suggests it is all worth it.
“Goin’ loco for the Choco” in 2015.
Crossing the dream-reality threshold requires navigating obstacles before giving up. And if you are about to give up, perhaps try a new pair of shoes.
I asked Chris about his favorite pair of running shoes. “I’m very, very, very, very much a fan of HOKA. I race in the Clifton on-roads and the Challenger ATR, which is just the trail version of the Clifton. My entire family is now HOKA. I’m very much a HOKA evangelist.”
What about fuel?
“If you’re going to be exercising for a very long time, Tailwind Nutrition is the easiest way to go. Rather than having to carry a bunch of goo gels, or carry a bunch of electrolytes, Tailwind is just a formula that you put into your water, and though it tastes terrible, it keeps you from being hungry, it keeps you properly sated, gives you enough of the salt and electrolytes that you need. It’s just a good, all-around fuel.”
Mount Cheaha 50K, completed in February 2017.
Chris participates in races all across the country. His favorite in Birmingham? The answer might scare you.
“My favorite one in the city is a BUTS Bearly Ultra race called Race Against the Sun. It’s on the shortest night of the year, starts at the official sunset time, and ends when the sun rises. You have to make it through 4, 9.5-mile loops around Ruffner Mountain, completely at night. Everybody brings headlamps, but that’s not enough.
“You also have to have a pen and paper,” Chris explains. “There are books hanging from trees, spaced out a mile apart. You have to find the appropriate page in that book to prove you went to each checkpoint. Once you find that page, it tells you where the next book is and the next page and the next page. If you miss a checkpoint, then you screw up your entire race, your numbers won’t match, and that lap you just did is disqualified.”
Sounds easy enough to manage. Right?
“Only two or three people have made it through that entire race out of five years of it being held. If you make it, you end up running about thirty-six miles in the dark, reading these books, recording the numbers. It’s just an awful thing. They try to make it a horror movie. In the middle of the race, I see this ghostly guy yelling all these weird chants and stuff. It was a friend that they had hired, there to be in costume, just to mess with the race and freak people out during breaks.”
For motivation on taming the demons (both inside and out), Chris sets personal goals against the marathon times of U.S. presidents and politicians, namely George W. Bush and Paul Ryan. He also listens to music while he runs.
"Running is a drug that makes music sound better, and of course the music makes it easier to run,” Chris explains. “I used to wear sport headphones and earbuds, but they’re all a waste of money. Studio monitors are the way to go. If you're going to be listening for hours, it might as well be with the best sound possible."
If Chris gets lost, dehydrated, or just feels like quitting, he does his best to turn up the volume, channel the pain, and keep going.
Only a handful of minutes into the race, though Chris still felt like celebrating.
Committing to change is the crux of the Hero’s Journey. Ninety-nine percent of people are scared of their dreams, writing off goals as mere fantasies, piling them into a library of hopes unrealized. The athletic spirit, on the other hand, riles up confidence in knowing you can change, and fosters the courage it requires to do something about it.
Then, of course, you actually have to do something about it.
Chris says it best in his blog:
“Running late at night on trails is bizarre, but so is success in general. If you’ve committed to running a 50k or beyond, people will already think you’re weird. Don’t be shy about what you’re doing, and fly that freak flag high…because honestly, you’re not fooling anyone anyway.”