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August 16, 2018

Track on the Road Interlude: Trails and Toilet Brushes

Last week, after a dominant win at Sierre-Zinal in Switzerland, Kilian Jornet, arguably the single greatest trail runner in the history of our species, tweeted a photo in which he is depositing the wrapper from a mid-race snack into a trash receptacle.

I nearly wept.

The image affected me so deeply because I’ve spent this summer working as a custodian on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. My days are split between logging hilly miles on the dirt roads and trails in and around the park and fighting an endless battle against the trash and flecks of excrement left behind by visitors.

And I should be really happy to have this job. My office is one of the most strikingly beautiful places on this planet, and people come from all over the world just to get to spend a couple of days here. But there are also moments, when I find myself scrubbing a brown Jackson Pollock reproduction off a wall or picking dirty diapers out of a recycling bin, where a cynical voice in my head asks how I ended up here, doing this, why I’m not in some yuppie tight-jeans-and-leather-shoes outfit in front of a standing desk at a hip office in some up-and-coming American city, why I’m not utilizing my hard won degrees to make a consistent annual salary.

It’s been a sobering reality, balancing out the romanticism of our spring spent racing and traveling in the van. Sometimes, the memories of that trip start to feel like a movie we watched a while ago. Fleeting scenes come surging back to the forefront of my head and I can almost taste that salty spray coming off the pacific, that musty, fine red dirt across the southwest. Then it’s gone.

But when one of the most important athletes in the running world recognized the significance of getting trash into the trash can, it got me closer to finding the meaning in these past months, to find a connection between my work in the park and my ambitions as an athlete.

This particular rhythm of life has me thinking about the connection between endurance athletes and public lands and the role we play in helping to preserve them. We all have our training grounds, our trails and roads that feel like home, where we put in the work before taking off to far flung places to prove our worth. I consider myself really lucky to get to call Rocky Mountain National Park my training ground, and, after these two and a half months, I’m beginning to understand how lucky I am to get to spend my days taking care of it.

It’s 5:30 a.m. I’m watching the steam curl up from the inverted red cone sitting atop a Roy Griak Invitational mug, coffee grounds and boiling water swirling together within and percolating through to the ceramic below. I’m in the split shorts I slept in and a down jacket, it’s probably in the high 30’s outside but it will hit 70 pretty quickly once the sun rises.

My Park Service standard issue ball cap sparkles with salt, not from aggressive toilet scrubbing and tossing bags of picnic trash, but from my insistence on wearing it on most runs, especially long days on the trails and workouts on the dirt roads where I imagine people seeing me run by, seeing the hat, and thinking I might be some sort of ultra-light backcountry ranger on a mission.

I’m not really a ranger. But they don’t have to know that.

The hat represents at least in part the insecurity that’s chased me since I ran my last race in a college kit.

andrew-wise-park-rangerThe hat is my way of letting complete strangers know that I am not just a privileged visitor to Grand Lake, this idyllic little resort town on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, but that I am a part of its fabric, that I have some authority, and that I have somehow earned the right to rip along these trails twice a day.

The coffee’s gone in a few long sips, and I’m out the door, padding along an empty two lane road that follows the back end of town, then turning up a steep dirt road to the North Inlet Trail. It slices through narrow valleys of willow before reaching a quiet bend in the stream. This is where I learned to fish, swatting mosquitos while fumbling with the end of a tapered leader, trying to remember the steps to the knot to attach the tiny caddis fly to the line, stubbornly refusing help from my dad.

This morning, mist hangs in the tall grass. The coffee’s reached the ends of my limbs by now and I can breathe it all in. In an hour, I’ll be back at the same trailhead, squatting alongside a white plastic pit toilet, scrubbing at the splatter and flecks until it’s returned again to a blank canvas. I’ll repeat that same process about thirty times, up and down Trail Ridge Road.

I’ve been writing this piece in my head all summer, thinking of clever lines and important images. But the contaminated purple nitrile gloves on my hands keep me from writing any of it down, and by the time I’m ungloved and back in the truck, most of it’s gone.

But right now, I’m relishing in the downhill half of an easy morning run. I loop back through town, and I have it to myself. The old west style boardwalk is empty, ice cream shops dormant for at least another four hours. I burst back into the cabin. My girlfriend, Brit, is still sleeping and I’m quiet as I put on the rest of the uniform that goes with the hat.

Then I’m stocking a large flatbed truck with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, trying to beat the crowds to the restrooms at the visitor’s center.  

And by the end of the day, as I’m cleaning another toilet, or washing my hands of the slurry of coffee, soda and rain water that leaks from the black plastic trash bags I’ve tossed by the hundreds into the park’s trash compactor, I have to remind myself what I’m doing here.

Over the course of the last year, while writing for CITIUS and finishing out my college distance running career, I’ve leaned heavily on the idea that there is always hope for a distance runner who persists. My modest body of work for this venerable publication includes profiles of unlikely heroes, of climbing from the depths of the sport on will and work alone.

But now, suddenly, it’s my turn to try to inhabit that kind of story. Or let it go, settle in, and move on to the next phase.

In March, I was faced with a choice: Take a reporting job at a small newspaper, work long hours and let training fall by the wayside, or sign on for a job in Rocky Mountain National Park, live in the cabin my parents and I built over the four and a half years I was in school, and return to the altitude and the trails and roads where I built myself into a passable athlete. I chose toilets.

The publication offices on campus where I served in various editorial posts feel far away in these moments. I listen to NPR all day in the truck and Malcolm Gladwell podcasts when I’m cleaning buildings, trying to stay connected to that journalistic world. Everyone in their cars around me is trying to sever that connection, escape that reality and I find myself grasping at it to try and maintain this aspect of my identity that I thought I’d spent four and a half years cultivating.

But then it’s the end of the day and I’m out of the uniform. What’s left of the coffee from the morning goes in the microwave, two more slices of toast and I’m cruising along a winding dirt road, rising further above town and the lake with each switchback, watching the setting sun turn the thunderheads on the other side of the continental divide deepening shades of orange and purple.

Brit meets me at a trailhead and we run along the Colorado River together. She describes the frustrating interactions from the vacationers she serves at the coffee shop all day, all the people who just don’t get it. I give her all the gritty details of the messes I’ve cleaned up and down the park. We allow ourselves this hour of cynicism in order to stay sane. I think anyone who has worked in a resort town probably recognizes this process.

And the sun cuts through the trees, and we run, and no one will see these miles on Strava and no coach is waiting for us to check in.

Because we work weekends, we don’t race as often as we’d like, and when we have raced, it’s mostly been local classics like the Bolder Boulder. I tried to make a big move during the West End 3k and at least succeeded in making it into the frame of a photo on Noah Droddy’s Instagram. A few kind folks recognized me, or at least the CITIUS singlet, and that kept me going through another few weeks of solitary workouts.

We’re hoping all this quiet work high in the mountains, including long trail days with big vertical gain and 30×1 minute fartleks on a rolling dirt road that serves as our local version of Magnolia, is going to pay off through the fall, when we can get back in the van again and live from race to race. The plan is to test out a little bit of everything, from road 10k’s and 10-milers to a trail 50k, all culminating in a big day for our respective clubs at Club Nationals in Spokane.

When we do hit the road again, I’ll have a fundamentally different perspective on the campgrounds where we stay and the trails we run. I’ll recognize the blood and sweat shed by trail crews to build footpaths that blend in with the landscape, that drain well and hold up over generations of use. I’ll appreciate a well-stocked vault toilet and a trashcan that isn’t overflowing.

There are a few trends I’ve observed in the waste stream of the national park worth noting:

  1. In approximately 80 percent of the trash bags I pull, there is at least one empty McDonalds bag near the top.
  2. I’ve never seen an empty Monster Energy can make it into the recycling bin. I have a hunch this behavior also correlates with the number of raised Dodge Rams grunting black diesel as they accelerate away from the entrance station.
  3. The soft drink known as “Tab” still exists. I had only heard stories about this strange Vietnam-era beverage from parents and older relatives, but I found at least 50 empty tab cans in the Visitor’s Center recycling bins a few weeks ago. Maybe they have a deal with the Boy Scouts.
  4. The last six ounces of a 20-ounce mocha is almost never consumed. Without fail, at least half of the trash bags piled on the truck leak milky brown streaks of abandoned coffee, proving that NO ONE needs a giant coffee drink. Add it to the list of ubiquitous and completely senseless American habits.
  5. People from Louisiana are really sweet. People from New York are not.

Initially, I really thought of this summer as one of those jobs you joke about once you’re established in another more obviously professional career. But I’ve found myself surrounded by an incredible group of people at Rocky. Most of the folks in the Maintenance department are at least 30 years my senior, and several of them a few more decades than that. And they are the some of the most vibrant, lively people in that stage of life that I’ve ever encountered.

They may not run competitively, but they understand building a life around getting to spend time in beautiful places. And what might on the surface seem like a basic and thankless job becomes rich and rewarding when you recognize the legacy of preservation the Parks represent.

I don’t know yet if I intend to make my career in the National Park Service, but the green and grey is getting pretty comfortable. I’m trying hard to subscribe to the idea that if I keep Park facilities clean, the people who use those facilities will think twice before throwing trash out the window of their car. And I can’t help but hope that one of the kids with their junior ranger badges will see me running a trail in a Parks Service hat and think they might try that someday.

I doubt that Kilian will see this, but if I ever happen to bump into him, I’ll thank him for doing his part in the war against tiny pieces of trash custodians like me are waging everyday. I hope the Coconino Cowboys toss a little love to the rangers taking care of the Coconino National Forest and especially to everyone at Grand Canyon bearing the weight of the tourist masses through the summer months.

All of us who run rely on the preservation of public spaces, whether it’s a city park or seashore. We’ve all been saved by a well-placed and well-kept public restroom. What would the Boulder running scene be without the bathrooms at Tom Watson Park to bear the brunt of pre-long run pit stops on Sunday mornings?

While I might argue that we should all take a turn with the toilet brush, I’ll leave it at this: Treat your public spaces and facilities with a little reverence. Thank your local facility managers, garbage people, and custodial workers. When public lands anywhere are threatened, throw your weight behind protecting them, because your local trails could be next. Our continued existence in these places demands a collective humility, in recognizing their fragility and making that tiny bit of extra effort to keep our footprints light.

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