Jenn Shelton keeps popping up in my life. You might be thinking “Who’s Jenn Shelton?” She’s a minor celebrity. A world-class ultra-marathon runner and a pretty good writer. She had a bit part in Christopher McDougall’s massively bestselling Born to Run. Mostly as comic relief. The book made it seem like when she wasn’t winning races, she was either lost, or drunk, or wiping out on the trail. I read an interview with her once where she said she was unfairly portrayed in Born to Run. To paraphrase: “Maybe everything written about her was technically correct, but it still wasn’t fair. And not great for her career.”
Possibly, it wasn’t fair, but I doubt it was bad for her career. The very fact that I read an interview with her suggests that Born to Run put her on the map. Maybe not in the ultra-community, but definitely for the rest of the running world. I read Born to Run years ago, but suddenly I’m bumping into her left and right, figuratively, of course.
Last week, on a beach vacation, I read Scott Jurek’s Eat & Run, his 2012 autobiographical account of his unlikely ultra-career. In this book, he name-drops Shelton three or four times. As if he’s trying to capture some of her status. The irony of this is that in McDougall’s 2006 book, Shelton is portrayed as a star-struck kid when she meets Jurek. Now Shelton is the star. Wholesomely pretty, always smiling in pictures. Self-deprecating, acting like she doesn’t have her shit together. Living day-to-day, but on her own terms. She represents everyone’s wild little sister. She’s one of the few marketable ultra-runners.
When I returned home from the beach, I had two Trail Runner magazines waiting in my mailbox. Six weeks ago, I grabbed one in a book-store. I loved it and decided to subscribe. This always ends the same way. I’ll buy a magazine at the newsstand for an absurdly high price. I’ll see that I can subscribe for a whole year for a few dollars more than I just paid for the one issue. I wait and wait, and when the magazine finally arrives, it’s the one I’ve already bought. At least this time they included the next issue so I had something new to read.
Jenn Shelton is a contributing editor for Trail Runner. And so far—two magazines worth of content—a pretty good one. An engaging, clean, thoughtful writer. In the July issue, she writes about a Grand Canyon running adventure with Lance Armstrong. If I have a hot-button, Armstrong is it. OK, I have more hot-buttons than I can count, but Armstrong is high on my list. Before I even started reading the article, I was crafting a letter to the editor in my head – full of contempt and smug self-righteousness. This kept my mind occupied on a hot eight-mile run.
Armstrong isn’t a hero, he’s a cheater. “Everyone else does it” isn’t an excuse. He has no place in competitive sports, even for recreation. Gains made on performance enhancers don’t disappear when the cheating stops. He dumped his wife after she nursed him through cancer. He dumped his girl-friend, Sheryl Crow, when she got cancer. I’m a counter-culture type—disdainful of those embraced by mass-media and the masses. Lance Armstrong was the anointed “prince of the fitness crowd.” With his EverythingSTRONG brand and his stupid yellow bracelets. It made my eyes roll, and my head shake every time his name was mentioned, which, at his peak-popularity, was several times a week. I enjoyed his fall from grace. His clipped wings, his plummet from the clouds.
See? I’m really down on this guy. Judging him without really knowing anything about him. Unfair? That never stopped me before.
Eight miles is a long time to mull over a single subject. Eventually I softened a bit. The trail racing community hasn’t banned Lance, so he has joined it. And why not? It’s a perfect fit. The sport is littered with broken souls and checkered pasts. Substance abusers trading one addiction for a (questionably) healthier one. Runners who have hit the woods, not just for solitude, but to escape society. The mentally ill, the lonely souls, ex-cons, the chronically injured. It seems like every time I read something about the trail running, I’m reading about redemption.
I fit right in. A lifetime of alcohol abuse, social anxiety, OCD, and Tourette Syndrome. I’ve been a lifelong runner, but as a trail runner, I feel like I’ve finally found my sport. I might even say I found my identity. But this is something I try to avoid—gaining identity from my activities. I’ve spent too much of my life putting myself into boxes: a runner, a writer, a drinker, a guy with OCD. I took these definitions, I drew a circle around each of them, and I said “these are me”. Over the past few years I’ve worked to switch my thinking. To see myself as something more than the contents of these circles.
There is something about trail running that appeals to the beaten-up crowd. The misfits who feel uncomfortable in polite company. Those who prefer to compete against themselves rather than against others. Pace is all but meaningless on an ungroomed trail. Speed is sacrificed to technical-ness. The ability to navigate through a rock-garden without turning an ankle. Crossing an ice-glazed stream without dunking your feet. And of course, there are the hills. Hills on the roadway are rounded down to save gas, to protect car engines. Natural wooded trails tend to follow the most efficient route. Sometimes this includes switchbacks, but usually the trail is a straight line up a hill. The fastest way to the top.
The hills and terrain can be brutal, even scary. But for many (most?) trail runners, this makes a running path even more appealing. There is an element of metaphorical self-flagellation in the trail-community. Embracing punishing routes as preferable, maybe even enjoyable. As if the purpose of the run is to serve penance for our vices. Society won’t punish us, so we need to punish ourselves.
My beach trip last week was to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. There is a park there that consists of nothing but sand dunes. All of my runs in North Carolina were run barefoot on soft sandy beaches. Uneven foot-strikes and poor traction. An attempt to toughen myself up. But my favorite run of the week was hill repeats on the dunes. Simultaneously burning my quads and calves with effort. And the soles of my feet with scorching sand.
I saw hundreds of runners in North Carolina. Virtually all of them on the bike path adjoining the main roadway. I saw a few on the beach, but in hard-packed sand down by the water. None in the soft, uneven sand where the tide rarely reaches. And certainly no one running the dunes. I have to believe that if Jenn Shelton or Scott Jurek or even Lance Armstrong were there, they would be blowing past me with a big grin on their face. Running away from—or possibly chasing after their demons.
After reading Shelton’s essay, I’m unable to write a rebuttal. There is nothing to rebut. Jenn is not apologetic for Armstrong. In fact, she’s kind of mean. She calls him a prima donna. A guy motivated by a soft bed and a good meal. Not as mentally tough as the trails-heads in her circle. But she also calls him a friend. She is not judgmental of his past sins. They have nothing to do with their relationship. They like to run, to joke, to poke fun at one another. Besides being a great runner and a fine writer, Jenn seems to be a pretty good person as well. I’m glad I’m getting to know her.
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Original essay introduction:
I feel like someone has stolen my baby… or at least my cat… or something… something important that I don’t want stolen. Two and a half years ago I published a story on the Runner’s World blogsite, the Loop. This is far less impressive than it sounds. Anyone with an account could post there, and to get an account, you simply signed up for one.
This story was special to me. It was one of the last essays I wrote before I created the Other Stuff *. My writing style was settling down, moving from disjointed/agitated into languid. I was just getting back into running and I’d recently realized I’d turned myself into a trail runner.
* Full disclosure here, I didn’t actually create this blog, Susan did. I couldn’t figure out how to do it, and Susan got sick of listening to me bitch about it. And it wasn’t called the Other Stuff yet. I gave it the uninspired name jefftcann.com. I was trying to turn myself into a brand.
My story Jenn, Lance & Me became, over time, the top link when a Googler Googled Jenn Shelton and Lance Armstrong. For a while, this was something people did frequently. And since I’ve obsessively checked in on my page views every couple of weeks over the past two years, I can tell you that it’s still something people do today.
About a month ago, I clicked the link to my post, and I learned that Runner’s World killed the Loop. They simply took the web site down. They wanted the conversation to move to Facebook (Facebook is italicized because I want the reader to spit the word out with disdain). People like me had posted thousands and thousands of stories on the Loop, and many of those stories, mine included, got thousands and thousands of views. Now those posts are gone. While the content is dated, I still think Jenn, Lance & Me is a decent chunk of writing, and I want it back up on the internet.
At this point, I don’t really care about the page views. I only care where it lands on Google’s list of links. I want it back on top. I want it there so that one day my story will be read by Jenn Shelton. This is because I’m a trail runner and I’m a man. And if you’re a male trail runner, catching the attention of Jenn Shelton is something you crave, even though I doubt I’d like her much if we ever met.