Ego tripping … and falling
6er Relay offers chance to play with the mind’s most dangerous weapon
RAY BROOK — “Today is all about ego.”
That’s according to a shoeless man at the junction of the Haystack and McKenzie mountain trails. This was a warning, not a celebration of ego.
It was mid-day during the third annual 6er Relay, and the man, Mark Boyce, had just descended Haystack, his bare feet splashing through filthy, chilly puddles. Haggardly, he unzipped his pack and threw his team’s punch card into the McKenzie runner’s outstretched palm.
He was a bit muddier and wearier than when he had raced past me, up the mountain, under an hour ago. He wasn’t being philosophical about the nature of the day’s event — humility was his excuse for not snapping a selfie on the summit, like his friend Alicia Boughton had asked him to.
“I’m trying to be humble and not take images of it,” Boyce said unconvincingly.
Still, he wasn’t wrong. There is no other reason to run up a mountain at full speed except to stoke your own ego. The day of the 6er is full of ego boosts: high-fives at the hand-offs, an awards ceremony at the end with medals for everyone, and the envious eyes of every hiker you sprint past as they realize their casual hike in the woods pales in comparison to the valiant feat of endurance you are undertaking.
Boyce was smart to be wary of it all.
The haka boost
My team, the Usain Dolts, started the day with a haka, a loud, aggressive Maori dance — the ultimate show of ego and bravado.
We had gathered in Berkeley Green with a nervous energy and needed the boost. We were a ragtag group of experienced runners and hiking amateurs, and I had not even met the sixth member of our team in person. I’ve talked with Jeremy Evans on the phone before, interviewing him in his role as CEO of the Franklin County Industrial Development Agency. He was a last-minute member, and I knew nothing of his hiking skills.
I soon learned that he was the seventh person ever to earn the Ultra 6er patch (all six in 24 hours) running them all when the challenge started in 2013. Now I felt he was mismatched with our team, whose stated goal was “not to win, just to finish.”
When he joined the rest of the Dolts for our unrehearsed and unconventional haka, our spirits rose. We were a team. We were ready.
Ego can be good.
Waiting and tailgating
Through the first half of the day, I watched my fellow Dolts run their mountains. Griffin Kelly went first, tackling Baker in the dark. He came back — after a brief stint being lost — looking tired and relieved.
At the St. Regis-Jenkins trailhead we entered a bona fide tailgating scene. As Justin Simcox took off toward the fire tower atop St. Regis, I saw people cooking breakfast burritos, drinking PBRs and walking dogs. Every few minutes a runner would emerge from one of the trails, puffing on the frosty morning air as they stumbled into a car and were driven off.
Justin returned drenched in sweat, aspirating heavily and, frankly, looking like he had fallen down every step of the St. Regis fire tower. It was several minutes until he could breathe enough to hold a conversation.
Jeremy took off toward Jenkins, a new summit for the 6er relay this year. My mountain, Haystack, was next, but I hadn’t even started to loosen up my legs when Jeremy appeared around a corner and leaped into the back seat of the car.
He had hauled up and down the mountain in under an hour.
We sped — as fast as the law allows — back to Saranac Lake and dropped Jeremy off. He was coaching his son’s soccer team that afternoon. No wonder he ran so fast.
Nathan Curletta and I hit the McKenzie-Haystack trailhead, and I took off, my eyes set on Haystack. Nathan would meet me at the junction. I was impressed with the athleticism my teammates had displayed that morning. We might make some good time — if I could keep their pace.
Alas, I am not a runner. I run in bursts, but my breath shortens quickly.
I knew the 6er Relay would be a story, so I had written a bit before the race: things to think about on the trail, notably, “Hike angry” and “I want to hike so hard it hurts.”
I had been in a bad mood when I wrote those.
I thought they’d keep me moving. Now that I was on the trail, I realized these were the fruitless words of ego. I was not angry. I was miserable. I was lethargic. I stopped to breathe. Then I started sprinting again when I heard a group of casual hikers I had just passed coming up behind me.
I had to preserve my ego. These hikers couldn’t see me out of breath.
Ego was good. Ego was what kept me going.
Every non-racer I passed had something in their eye. A look of longing. Longing to do something so cool. I wasn’t just doing the same hike as them, I was doing it harder than them.
The hikers smiled and chitchatted as they meandered along the path. We runners, we frowned — focused. We leaped over boulders, scampered past others on the narrow parts and ran straight through the deep muck, forsaking our dry boots.
I had to pause again. My breakfast was returning, and I directed it off the trail as I stumbled forward. It seems this happens every time I hike hard. If there’s a doctor out there who can diagnose that, hit me up. But Justin said he had lost it, too, so I was in good company.
As I began sucking the crisp air again, I saw canyons carved in the mud where soft ground betrayed runners’ heels, sending them into panicked free-fall. I saw leaves pushed into clumps on slick boulders, evidence of a close call. I saw a man descending from Haystack with portions of the muddy tail caked to his skin and clothes. The only thing faster than him was gravity, and when it finally caught up to him it tripped him into the sludge. Was it admirable or foolish? Either way it was impressive.
I wanted to look like him. To be covered in effort. To have evidence of a struggle.
But when I met Nathan at the junction for the handoff, I was clean, functioning, and my shirt was dry. Pathetic.
Nathan had the longer hike, too. Every runner returning from McKenzie spoke of ice, snow, mud and running water at the summit.
I had already sat at the junction for a long time, but after these troubling weather reports I did not expect Nathan for a while longer. I sat and enjoyed the peaceful air. The bright orange tapestry above me was falling apart piece by piece.
The dangers of an ego
I was relieving myself in the woods, confident I had time aplenty, when I heard the thumping footsteps of a weary man sprinting downhill. Nathan had returned, and I, fool that I am, was not prepared. Zipping up my pants I let loose a battle cry — half out of surprise and excitement to see my compatriot so soon, half to let Nathan know I was wrapping up my business and joining him on the trail.
“Keep up with me!” he shouted as he bolted past, and I fell into line on the trail with him, tightening my belt. He sounded winded, determined and a bit annoyed. I had been caught unprepared. My dedication to this race called into question. My fraud exposed.
He was right. I had to keep up with him. He was the carrier of the card. The rules of the 6er Relay dictate that the last mountain ascender must pass the punch card off to the next mountain acender. No go-betweens, no middlemen.
I matched his pace, a speedy scramble down the wet rocks and through standing water. No time to jump rock to rock.
“You’re a beast!” “You’re the man!” I yelled up to him. “You conquered that mountain! Snow, ice, mud. You did it all!”
My high praise got him going, gave him juice, put some “oomph” in his legs.” His ego had also gotten that “oomph,” and he was running faster than he would have if I hadn’t been so enthusiastic. Later, he referred to this as being “gassed up.” I was running faster than I should have, too.
The path was treacherous, but we were flying. Following Nathan’s footsteps, I again felt the shame of inadequacy. I was breathing hard, and the air fed a dull fire in the muscles of my legs. Here was my friend, having just run the most difficult distance of the race, and he was chugging along, no problemo. Meanwhile I trailed behind him, weak of leg and lung.
We were maybe half a mile down the trail when I stumbled on the wet leaves. My legs were rubber and outran themselves. My left leg shot out to stop my clumsy descent, but I felt my knee bend — the wrong way. Like a pole vaulter I took to the air and rolled across the leaf-riddled path.
Nathan, bless his heart, turned to see me lying broken in the mud.
“Keep going!” I shouted. The race must go on. With a worried look he turned and continued on, disappearing into the quiet forest.
I got to my feet and tested my leg. Ouch.
But I could hobble out.
Maybe I wanted to fall. Maybe I knew Nathan was eventually going to have to slowly leave me in the dust, and to save myself the humbling experience, I settled for a stumbling experience. An emotional trap door released me down into the safe comfort of injury.
Or maybe I’m just a klutz. You tell me. It’s easier to stare at even the sun than the ego.
Nathan picked me up on state Route 86 and drove me to the Scarface trailhead, where my brother Stephen was wrapping up the final mountain of the day.
Back at Berkeley Green, as we Dolts celebrated our achievement, my brother wondered what made the day feel so special.
“It’s pretty fun,” Stephen said, “but I don’t know what it is about it. We just hiked some mountains.”
I think what makes it fun is the chance to play with the ego, which is also a double-edged sword, as I found out. I raised up Nathan’s ego — rightfully so — but so much that it indirectly hurt me.
I limped around, catching up with other teams about their runs. Everyone asked about my leg.
I was injured. I was a hero.
It is now a little more than a week later. My leg still hurts when I turn it the wrong way. But my ego is intact.