THUNDERHEAD MOUNTAIN, TN – The hills roll along the Tennessee–North Carolina border, a subrange of the Appalachian called the Smoky Mountains but commonly shortened to the Smokies. The name originates from the natural fog that often hangs over the range. Since the early days of the Prohibition, moonshiners have concealed their stills behind the thick veil of mist. But today, the Smokies are home to a new brand of outlaws.
“They think they can hide in the fog,” says Lt Skip Andersen. He aims his index finger at the wooded slopes. The Appalachian Trail emerges from the clouds, meandering around tall sandstone boulders. Lt Andersen quickly adds: “But no one can hide from the Law. Not even up in the Smokies.” He pulls an imaginary trigger as the thunder roars over the mountain pass.
A couple of AWD police cars are parked at the trail head, only a few yards away, rotating lights flashing. The suspect, a man on his mid-20’, sits on the wet ground, shivering. A Livestrong-like orange wristband spells his name, Stanley ***, along with a phone number. His face is gaunt. His painfully thin arms are wrapped around skinnier legs, chin resting on a wounded knee. Coagulated blood and dirt have formed a protective outer shell around a deep cut above the kneecap, but within the shell, the skin is raw.
Lt Andersen aims his flashlight at Stan. “We catch them in the woods, at night, just like wild game. Except we can’t shoot them.” He erupts in a thunderous laugh. “The kids don’t know it, but I’m just protecting them.”
Stan looks up at the officer. He shivers, his teeth shattering the morning silence.
Dr. Williams, 30, knows the Smokies like to the bell of her stethoscope. Resident at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, only a few miles north of Thunderhead Mountain, she is tall, fit, if not athletic. A runner. “With moderation. 10-12 miles a week, never faster than conversation pace. And mostly trails.”
“Running.” The word makes Dr. Williams smile. “Everyone has an opinion about the sport. And almost no one gets it right.”
Training, diet and injury prevention are the subjects of so many myths, it has become nearly impossible to sort out science from popular belief. On top of that, ultra running hasn’t been around long enough to really assess its impact on an older population.
But could trail running really be… unhealthy?
“It could be,” says Dr. Williams. “Because of bodily breakdown, long distance running can have deleterious effects on muscles, elevating C-reactive protein, an indicator of inflammation. Endurance runners face a greater risk of cardiac damage, outlined by the death of ultra legend Micah True last year.”
So why people run?
“People run for reward.” But not for the obvious one, such as weight loss or a race PR. The reward is mostly hormonal. “There’s a lot of data that your psychological health—anxiety, depression, all kinds of things—is so tremendously impacted by exercise.”
And just like tobacco products, illegal and prescription drugs, alcohol, fatty and salty food, the runner’s high can become addictive.
Can trail running develop into an unhealthy addiction?
“Exercise both protects and provokes cardiovascular events. But it’s important to remember that the overall benefits of exercise outweigh the risks. Other than moderation, prevention is the key, here. Anyone interested in long distance running should be carefully evaluated by a cardiologist before beginning an exercise program, no matter their age.”
Lt Skip might have been right after all.
A few days after his arrest, Stan is sitting at a fancy coffee shop in downtown Chattanooga. He sips on a 32OZ Chia-Chai tea, while staring at the screen of a glossy MacBook Pro.
“I’m checking out races on trailrunnermag.com,” he says without looking up.
When asked on what charge he was arrested, he finally lifts his eyes above the screen. “Trespassing. That section of the park closes at sun down.”
How about running during the day? “How do you train for a night race in broad daylight?”
Hiker’s permit? “Listen bro, I’m an outlaw, but I’m not a criminal. And I can’t afford the permit anyway.”
He shuts down the lid of the $1500 MacBook Pro. “The Mac is gift from my main sponsor, Chia-Chai Tea, an Oregon-based company with a great line of chia-based products.” He raises his cup and pours the content down his throat.
“As a matter of fact, Chi-Chai is my second main sponsor.”
Stan’s dad, a Brooklyn physician and 2:37 marathoner, pays for his son’s bills. “As long as I log 100 miles a week and finish at least 5 ultras during the calendar year.” And possibly graduate from college one day. But Stan feels constricted in the classroom. Trail running is trending. Sponsors are rushing in. Money is flowing.
“It’s just a start, man. I’m trying to go pro.”
Stan grew up on the Slope in Brooklyn, NY. He started trail running in 2008, up and around Bear Mountain, after reading Paul Gryson’s “A Walk In The Wood”. Five miles, then ten. Then fifty. Each week. In the Catskills, closer to the orchards than to the Big Apple, Stan met other runners, and more often than not, flew past them.
He says he isn’t much of an athlete. But on the trails Skinny Stan is light and nimble. And he can go all day.
“79 VOMax. Thanks for the genes, dad.”
Stan never joined his high school XC team. He didn’t mind racing, but the loner hated the team aspect. Instead, he kept running the Appalachian Trail. Relentlessly. After he graduated, he spent the summer racing in Europe. He made a few Euros and lots of pals.
“I got hooked, bro. Badly.”
In the fall, Stan flew back to the US, moved to Chattanooga, enrolled in a community college and started running twenty five hours a week.
Addiction? “Okay. I’d say obsession.”
Unhealthy? “I don’t run to be healthy. I run cause I freaking love it.”
His take on Dr. Williams warning about long distance running: “99% of the dudes who collapse mid-run are already damaged. They just don’t know it. Look at Micah True. Best shape on earth, bad heart.”
What if the leading cause of Caballo Blanco’s damaged heart was his running?
“Then he died of his unconditional love for trail running. His heart just exploded. Boom!”
Stan concludes: “Too much love, bro.”
Too much love.
Can love develop into an unhealthy addiction?
For once, I’m at a loss for words.
This is somewhat a work of fiction, and most of the names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously (kind of). Any resemblance to actual events or locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, slow or fast, is almost entirely coincidental.