Every athlete has their stomping grounds.
Larry Bird at the Garden. Favre’s invincibility inside frigid Lambeau.
Champion ultra-runner Jim Walmsley claims he could take anyone on the trails of the Grand Canyon.
It’s the place that has both been given to you and thrust upon you. You didn’t choose it as much as it choose you, but there were kinks to be smoothed out for both parties nonetheless.
There’s something about the ground, the sky, the surroundings, and the weather —it’s tailor-made for you.
Up in Leadville, my “home, sweet home” is the Mineral Belt Trail.
For much of the year, it’s a groomed Nordic trail paradise, the arduous uphill climb providing a daily litmus test for my race readiness. If I am able to double pole to the top or stay in a V2 technique for the duration of the 5.5 mile climb, I’m in good shape ….or the snow is fast. If I’m only catching people — never getting caught — that’s another good sign. If my dog isn’t yipping at the poles of fellow skiers, then her emotional fitness is where it should be, too.
In the short, Leadville summer, which falls between July 3 and July 5, the smooth, black pavement is ideal for rollerskiing when I feel like it and bike rides when I need them. The familiar turns, from 200 annual days of skiing, mean riding at night after a long day of work is doable.
Careening down corners, guided by the sixth sense of familiarity, I feel safe, not only because I avoid cars, but because I’m on my home field… and, because I’m away from the annoyance of wind, a biker’s real arch nemesis. If I choose to ride my mountain bike, I still rely on the Belt to traverse me from each of the mining district’s separate, distinct single-track offerings.
The trail is more than a training base, though. It’s also home to the Leadville Loppet, a 44k Nordic ski race that brings costumes and colleges, elites and elderly, children and champions, to the winding, 11.1 mile rail-trail every February. I suppose if I opened with homages to Favre and Bird, I might as well humbly make reference to the fact that I was the last to win the 44k classic race back in 2020 and I eagerly await the event’s return in 2022.
Afterall, like the hot, sweaty Boston arena or the drab, beer-stained (can you tell I’m a Viking’s fan) Packer stadium, it’s perfectly designed for me.
Long and grinding on the way up, safe and secure on the way down. I am compelled at this point in my soliloquy to say something along the lines of, “It’s a little like life,” but maybe that is too sappy.
The trail has provided intimate emotional moments for me, though. I’ve contemplated career changes — actually been offered a job while riding the belt — and thought about my future. My wife and I announced the pregnancy of our first child while skiing in tandem over the red bridge crossing 5th street last January.
I’ve also had moments where nothing is right and I am forced to stop well before the training plan says I should, panting desperately, just so that I can stew in my self-pity and shake my proverbial fist at the sky to shout, “What am I supposed to do now?!” …and “WHY?!”
I’ve also stopped at those same places — mid-interval — and gazed for far too long at the massive Mount Massive range from the awestriking view at mile marker 5 or the cart at the top of the first false summit and contemplated, “How could anyone believe my thoughts are just random chemical brain fizzes bouncing around a skull, sitting atop this bag of mostly water, which evolved from pond scum?”
Humbled by the grandeur of my surroundings, I realize just how small I am. I realize just how little control I — and Bird, Favre, and Walmsley — actually have, even on our front porch, which, never really belonged to us in the first place.
When the path along the trail transcends the route, you’ve found your stomping grounds.
Get out, explore, and find your own.