How ultra running helped me find healing, self-love, and self-acceptance
By Adam Andres Pawlikiewicz Mesa | Photos by Leonardo Brasil | Published Feb. 18, 2022 by Tailwind Nutrition
It was 4 am, and after a short night of restless sleep and endless prep, I felt a lingering feeling in the back of my mind, “what am I doing here? I don’t belong. I’m not even a runner.” I was just two hours away from testing myself both physically and mentally, more than ever before, on a course that even the most established ultra runners have a less than 50% chance of completing. The HighFive 100 is a 48-hour, 100-mile ultra-race that summits five 14,000 foot peaks in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado (Land of the Pueblos and Ute Peoples). If there was ever a moment to feel imposter syndrome it was now, as a self-identified “runner” who’s never done an “ultra” in his entire life. But something in me, deep down, felt capable enough to even try.
I first read about ultra running in David Goggins’ book, Can’t Hurt Me, a deeply vulnerable story about his battle with physical and emotional childhood abuse and his internal struggle of fighting to see himself as “worthy enough.” Ultrarunning became his arena to face his internal demons. I found the book deeply resonating with my own story and background, as the son of Polish/Colombian immigrants who did their best to raise my brothers and me in a foreign country, while battling their intergenerational trauma. As a child trying to make sense of it all, I quickly adapted many defense mechanisms to keep myself and my family safe. Learning how resisting my father led to repeated physical abuse or emotional turmoil, I quickly learned that to keep the peace, I needed to stay silent, suppress my negative emotions, and do as I was told. To admit that we were physically and emotionally abused triggers so much fear in me but in leaning into self-acceptance I’m learning to see my memories for what they are, accept them, and find it in myself to forgive. So, like Goggins before me, ultrarunning became my arena for battling against my internal demons; my own story that I’ve struggled to accept and fully acknowledge. As a sport that’s deeply accessible to all backgrounds, and something I believe survivors of abuse are uniquely well suited for, I laced up my shoes and began jogging to the start line.
It was a cool, calm morning and we were greeted with warm smiles from Logan Rhodes, the founder of the race, and his kind-hearted family. After a short speech on resilience, we were off and the two-day adventure was finally off to a start. Within the first 15 miles, I joined up with a seasoned ultra runner, where we spent no time in small talk and discussed our battles with depression and childhood abuse while navigating through bushwacks and open valleys where loose game trails navigated us to the base of Uncompahgre trail. During that time they shared with me some advice that stuck with me throughout the entire race, how ultrarunning is like a double-edged sword. It can help lead to self-acceptance if you manage your expectations and feelings of not being ‘good enough,’ but just as easily it can leave you feeling inadequate when your expectations have gone too high. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but would later find out just how true those words were. We parted ways on the way up the mountain and reached the summit with no issues.
During the descent, I linked up with Andrew Poland and Leora Wallace (the first-ever female finisher of the HF100) and decidedly shot down a gully off the side of Uncompahgre to gain some extra time and shorten the mileage of this choose-your-own-adventure style race where written checkpoints were all that awaited us with the occasional crew support stations every 15-20 miles. Between the hooting and hollering time flew by as Andrew and I navigated scree fields, wide basins, and singletrack trails to the base of our second 14er, Wetterhorn Peak. We slowly reached our summit with relative ease, where I defaulted to the pace that Andrew set based on his experience of finishing several ultras himself. We descended quickly and reached our first crew station around mile 30. After a brief break, we set off again, now joined with Felipe Tapia, one of my pacers. Luckily during the next section, Lee Smelter Gulch and Handies Peak, Felipe’s positive attitude would keep me fighting in the trenches for longer than I would’ve ever expected. This part of the course was what I feared most, remembering how many people dropped on it last year, and the several anecdotes Logan shared with me over the years about people getting lost and the brutal, three-mile, 4,000 ft. climb that awaited us. Andrew, Felipe, and I started strong as I navigated us through a mixture of game trails and bushwacks that ultimately led us to a sheer wall of scree that we would need to crawl up to reach the summit. It was at that point I reached a physical low where I encouraged Andrew to press onward since sunset was fast approaching. Felipe cheered me on through every step until we eventually reached our summit just as the sun was setting. Knowing how fun this upcoming descent would be we put on our jackets and I found myself feeling strong again as we flowed down singletrack until the base of Handies.
Here, we quickly waved hello to our crew as we weren’t allowed to receive aid until after summitting Handies in the dark. A few miles into the climb I felt my body start to ache, and my stomach began to knot. One-thousand feet from the summit I began feeling the effects of altitude and in hopes of curbing dehydration I took one too many salt pills, so my body began to reject food and water. We summitted at a painstaking pace, with many racers passing us, and during the descent, I began vomiting uncontrollably and having diarrhea. At that moment, I felt giving up was inevitable, but Felipe had hope that we’d at least be able to make it back to our aid station where we could make a plan and my body could be nursed back to health. It was during this low point I came to realize that I performed at my best when I was able to manage my emotions, recognize that both good and bad ones come and go, to not fight against them nor hold onto them but to feel what I needed to feel and ride through each moment. When I felt sleep-deprived, exhausted to my core, sick to my stomach, and dehydrated, I came to realize that this moment too will pass and that there was no fighting I needed to do against it, rather I needed to release any sense of control and allow myself the time and patience to move forward at a much slower and easier pace. It’s easy to fall into the mental trap of giving up when things are rough thinking that things won’t ever change, rather than understanding that this is just a moment in time that will pass. This thinking is certainly easier said than done. But, ultimately it confirms the fact of impermanence which, when recognized, leads to acceptance of the present. When that moment arrives, it’s far easier to work from. When that happened for me, my pace slowly started to pick up, my ability to sip on water returned, and before I knew it I was back at the campfire ready to take the time necessary to heal.
After a brief 20 minute nap in the cabin of my truck, while sipping on cup noodles and coffee, I felt myself coming back to life slowly. With the sun rising, and encouragement from my crew, I decided to press on with my other friend and pacer, Leonardo Brasil. The initial goal I set for myself at the start of this journey was to complete all five 14ers and with the worst three already behind us, I felt excited and energized that this goal was nearing completion. With the occasional 2-3 minute nap along the way, we summitted each peak taking in the cool, alpine air and the beauty of the San Juans all around us. Standing at the top of Sunshine Peak I kept feeling dumbfounded that I had finally reached this point, something that felt so impossible only a year ago. I felt so grateful in that moment; grateful to my crew for helping me get here, grateful to my family and friends for believing in me, grateful to my partner for supporting this vision, and grateful to Logan and his family for creating this incredible challenge. I felt myself ease and relax as we began the heinously steep descent to our next aid station.
Upon arrival, I collapsed on the floor dehydrated and sleep-deprived. I put my legs up and started taking down as many packets of Tailwind, Coca-Cola, and water as my body could handle. Felipe, eventually, pulled me off the ground and set a strong pace for our next section and goal, 12.8 miles up and onto the Continental Divide Trail. After a brief moment of what felt like a mixture of hypothermia and heat exhaustion, Felipe and I picked up the pace as dark clouds began to form all around us. All above the treeline, our concerns and pace now started to become highly unmanageable. When the rain started, I handed Felipe my second jacket and shortly thereafter it began to hail. With thunderstorms forming around us, Felipe stayed at my heels, shouting, “venga, con todo,” as I pushed harder than I ever thought possible with every bone, muscle, and nerve screaming in panic. During those last six miles, I ran my fastest pace in an effort to avoid being struck by lightning. The mixture of hail, cold weather, wet shoes, and body sensitivity radiated through my being and is an experience I’ll never forget. Fortunately, we made it to Carson Camp safely, albeit soaking wet and shivering. I immediately jumped in the car to keep my core temperature warm and change into something dry, while discussing the sad reality that we might need to end here, as the weather and my condition was steadily declining. All the other support crews had already left and their racers had quit at this point, even some runners turning around halfway as a result of the storms that lay ahead. Despite only having 29 miles left to go, it didn’t feel possible to complete in the 8 hours I had left nor safe for me to continue. My crew and I decided to end here and we haven’t regretted the decision ever since.
Months later and after some recovery I now know that I’ll be coming back next year to complete the race and to try even harder. The HighFive100, and ultra running as a whole, has taught me many lessons, the least of which are how to feel whole and confident in my fullest, broken self. Despite the challenges of the journey I’m still on, in feeling ‘worthy enough,’ ultra running has become my arena in finding healing, self-love, and self-acceptance. That, to me, is the most rewarding gift I could’ve ever asked for.