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May

27

2014

Happy Sisyphus

  • Sam Thompson and Brock Gavery on the flank of Glacier Peak just before the summit push.

  • Sam tinkers with his loaner bike outside his Seattle home with Brock in the foreground.

  • The new performance diet: Grilling pork...

  • ...and glazed doughnuts.

  • On the trail toward Glacier Peak after a two-hour nap at White Pass.

  • Brock in all-night party mode.

  • Sam follows Brokc's wheel across the South Fork Stillaguamish River.

  • In his Daisy Dukes, Sam scrambles among the crevasses near Glacier Peak's summit cone.

  • A break near Robe Canyon on the Mountain Loop Highway shortly after Sam's stomach rejected a barbecue sandwich.

  • The Triple Threaters pound the direct, not-so-scenic route home on Aurora Avenue.

Armed with doughnuts and cheap bourbon, two men leave the Seattle suburbs to bike 92 miles, climb 9,000 feet, and cross a glacier in the dark. Home? Start running. It’s 108 miles. This is the Triple Threat.

Story by David Hanson | Photographs by Michael Hanson 

Drunk on cheap bourbon, the two Seattle ultra-endurance personas finally fell asleep under a fir tree. But now I hear them again, even as my tent wall flaps in a gentle midnight breeze at White Pass. They are my friends, Sam Thompson and Brock Gavery, and they have woken not quite sober, mumbling to each other, or, as is often the case with Brock, to himself. A panning headlight breaks the darkness like the beam from a wandering UFO. I pretend to sleep, not ready to again confront their whirring metabolisms.

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A night portrait of Brock (left) and Sam at White Pass, the terminus of the bike leg.

Sam shivers in his giant down jacket, his core cold, but his powerful, shaven legs somehow still warm though tomato-red from yesterday’s sun-baked glacial climb in skimpy running shorts. He hesitates to remove the parka, his slender frame always a little chilled. Brock, a 5’10” gnarled oak of a man, anxiously shifts his weight from foot to foot—ready to go. Barely audible, he sing-hums to himself, “Ain’t no … wide enough, … getting to you, babe.”

The only complete sentence I can discern before their footsteps fade into a distant jog comes from Sam, in his Mississippi drawl. He lets Brock know, “I’m probably going to vomit at some point.”

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Sam starts the 92-mile bike leg.

First the numbers: A 92-mile bike ride to the trailhead, an 18-mile, 9,000-foot climb to a glaciated summit, and a 100-plus mile trail run. This is what Brock and Sam call Triple Threat, a back-of-the-napkin and purposely self-effacing term for this semi-annual backyard outing. They completed the out-and-back Triple Threat between 3 p.m. on a Thursday and 11 p.m. on Saturday, three days later.

Now let’s put that in perspective using what most leg-shaving, gram-counting, recovery-smoothie gulping endurance athletes think is the fitness barometer—the Ironman. It’s true, Triple Threat’s bike distance is 20 miles shorter than the Ironman bike. And Ironfolk swim 2.4 miles. But Triple Threaters climb 9,000 feet and navigate a glacier in darkness. Ironman’s run is 26.2 miles. Triple Threat runs 108 miles—ideally off-road. And whereas Ironman takes place in front of a crowd. Triple Threat runs away from people into a deep, dark wilderness filled with sleep deprived hallucinations and very real roadside cheeseburgers.

In the pseudo-gritty new world of CrossFit revolutions, barbed wire-ducking muddy pal races, 24-hour multisport adventurethons, and, of course, the Ironman, Triple Threat occupies its own strange orbit. An event without sponsors, entrance fees, support tents, or bumper stickers. No finishing medals. No belt buckles. As for fans, your wife, if she’s bothered to stay awake, might meet you at the finish line, which is your doorstep.

Because there was no Facebook page for Triple Threat II: Glacier Peak, or press release, or Kickstarter campaign, you’re almost certainly unaware that the most recent incarnation went down last September. The intended course ran from suburban Seattle to Glacier Peak, a hulking 10,541-foot stratovolcano piled deep in the North Cascades. My brother Michael and I shadowed our two friends. Sam and Brock would be doing the Triple Threat whether we (or our cameras and notepad) were there or not. At times it felt like observing rare, beautiful migrating animals in the wild. At other times, it felt like watching a train wreck. This is the story of two average-looking outdoor athletes riding into the teeth of 100 percent original, self-inflicted, inglorious, fitness obscurity.

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Sam (left) and Brock stop for a water refill in the alpine at 5 a.m. Friday.

The trip begins like most afternoon bike rides. Two men in their mid-30s pedaling out of the driveway of a 1960s ranch home in a quiet neighborhood of North Seattle. Sam’s wife Kirsten has just returned from work and taken over the care of their twin two-year-old girls. Sam has a three-day leave and he intends to stay awake for all but a few hours of it.

Summer rolls on in the northwest and 10 minutes into the ride, sweat is dripping from Brock’s chin and down the front of his secondhand, Smurf-blue spandex singlet. Sam, behind, wears a chamois and a lightweight button-up shirt appropriate for a picnic. They each carry medium-size hydration backpacks. Lean, fit men, they don’t seem out of place pedaling north on the Burke-Gilman Trail.

The differences are subtle. Sam fiddles with the gears on his loaner bike. He hasn’t ridden more than 10 miles on a single outing in the last six months. He’s having a hard time figuring out how to shift. In their packs, instead of feathery cycling shells, each of the men hauls a mountaineering weight down jacket. Brock wears giant, orange BluBlocker shades, making him look like Hunter S. Thompson traded his convertible for a cheap road bike. He carries three pounds of grilled boneless pork chops and four Dick’s Drive-In cheeseburgers, each item individually wrapped in sandwich baggies. There’s the requisite bladder full of water, but also a flask of Evan Williams Bourbon. Sam totes water, too, but he’s opted for six cheeseburgers, and a dozen glazed Krispy Kremes, the doughnuts smashed together in pairs and bagged.

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Sam drinks Cherry Coke outside the Green Gables General Store.

Since they’re my close buddies, I’ve heard of Sam and Brock’s exploits for years. They’ve always intrigued me with their dirtbag, imaginative style. It reeks of authenticity. Admittedly, Brock has a compulsion to talk endlessly about his random, daily, and incessant fitness activities, but it never comes across as preening. It’s more of  a coping mechanism, an end-of-workout cooldown. Sam is far more discrete. He could be up all night running a 54-mile loop around Lake Washington and he might not tell anyone.

Seattle is full of endurance athletes willing to regale you, in falsely modest tones, with race results or the epic climb from last weekend. In contrast, Sam and Brock seem like fitness avant-garde artists in a room full of air guitar shriekers.

Michael and I catch up to Brock and Sam as dusk sinks into the arrow-straight firs and cedars of the Mountain Loop Highway. The road makes a horseshoe into some of the Cascades’ best and least-used high country, but its remote, lawless feel has made it a haven for meth lab nutcases as well as alpinists.

We wait for the bikers at a spur atop Barlow Pass. The night sky is inky black by the time they arrive, still charging after six hours. With 15 miles left, they’ve almost completed the ride and are on pace to reach the Glacier trailhead well before midnight. Brock swigs on the Evan Williams bottle and Sam sips from a 2-liter Cherry Coke that we’ve stashed in the back of Michael’s truck. Brock is fired up. Sam is more sluggish.

Such is the life of off-the-couch athletes. Brock has battled more injuries than an NFL running back. For the past six months, he couldn’t do much more than box and ride a spinning bike because of a groin injury. Sam’s barely run more than 30 miles in one push since “retiring” from competitive ultrarunning in 2011. He’d warned me before the Triple Threat that I’d be seeing a weak, ugly side that I’d never witnessed. Michael and I are their only support on this outing. Their wives got turned off to the idea after the first Triple Threat.

Brock and Sam hatched Triple Threat I: Rainier 2010 with a single caveat. It had to be done from their front yard. That was the only ounce of purity to their scheme. Rainier was the obvious choice. A third buddy, Gavin, joined in at the last minute. From the neighborhood they share, the threesome biked 120 miles to Paradise Inn and grabbed small mountaineering packs. They summited Rainier after a brief, reckless, potentially life-threatening bivy atop Disappointment Cleaver in 35 mph winds, then descended to Paradise where things began to fall apart.

Brock had been hearing voices on the climb and was convinced that he’d received a voicemail saying his dad was dead. He endured the phantom tragedy and made it down, but his emotional ordeal compounded his physical exhaustion.

To understand Brock, begin with his (partly facetious) hero, Jeremiah Johnson—a fictitious character played by a young Robert Redford in Sydney Pollack’s 1972 film of the same name. Johnson rides alone into the frontier trailing a donkey. Brock regularly blurts out, to himself more than anyone else, his favorite rhetorical question, “What would Jeremiah Johnson do?” Everyone knows that Jeremiah charges on.

Brock has never killed a bear or skinned a beaver. He’s an attorney, able to channel his scattered, stubborn intensity into focused legal work. He grew up in Chicago, the youngest of three brothers in a Serbian family. Brock got the western mountain itch after a few high school backpacking trips in Montana and Washington, so he enrolled at a Jesuit college in Seattle.

Then, while fishing on the Snoqualmie River during college, a kayaker floated past. Brock was intrigued. He bought an old boat and some secondhand gear, including a used women’s wetsuit. Within a year he was bombing down Class V. Were Brock not such an impatient fool, his kayak exploits would have been featured in more of the early whitewater videos coming out of Seattle. The guys behind the famed Range Life blog? They were his paddling buddies.

But Brock hates waiting on anything, let alone cameramen. He suffers from what he calls destinationism. It’s a hack self-diagnosis, but he says it’s why he pushes through pain, injury, or simple etiquette to reach his preordained endpoint.

As Brock dove deeper into kayaking, living in a blue van with his dog Gus, and paddling three days a week during law school, he experienced the inevitable shoulder injury. Following the lead of a kayaking buddy, he ran a marathon to occupy the time. Then a 50k. In that first summer of running, he ran two 50-milers and a 100-miler.

If you ask him why he charges so hard, he’ll tell you it’s for the deep emotional joy it brings him to be Jeremiah Johnson for a while before returning to the everyday grind. It’s about shedding tears after running Turnback Canyon in a playboat, or crying during 100-mile runs. Fitness, more so even than drinking and smokes, has become self-medication for his destinationism affliction.

Yes, he owns a home surrounded by other young urban professionals, but he approaches life in a relentless end-of-the-world assault on time. His commute to work is an all-out sprint on a vintage 30-pound cruiser bike. He pounds out contracts at his office or breakfast table, refueling on raw vegetables and pork chunks dipped in mayonnaise. Instead of lunch he takes five-mile midafternoon runs through Discovery Park. Then it’s time for well bourbons with restaurateur clients on trendy Ballard Avenue. Dinner is more pork and veggies at home with his wife Mac. She’s a shellfish researcher at the University of Washington—the perfect calm, cool moon to Brock’s nuclear-burn-out sun.

All the fitness talk and the mountain man shtick can quickly make a city guy sound like a poser. But Brock earnestly sees the Triple Threat as an all-night party in the woods.

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After biking to the top of Barlow Pass, Sam hits the cheeseburger stash.

“His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man. The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains. Nobody knows whereabouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much. Bought him a good horse, and traps, and other truck that went with being a mountain man, and said good-bye to whatever life was down there below.” —Intro to Jeremiah Johnson

On Triple Threat I: Rainier 2010, after summiting and descending to Paradise, the party was turning sour. Brock made a few calls to convince himself his dad had not died. Sam, still relatively new to mountaineering, was pissed after nearly being left on the mountain as Brock charged onward. The three almost called it quits before attempting to run the 96-mile Wonderland Trail. Over beers and burgers at the Paradise Inn, Sam, convinced them to sleep in the woods beside the parking lot for a few hours then reassess. They took a five-hour nap in the trees, woke up feeling refreshed, and ran the Wonderland Trail in 33 hours.

Great stuff, unless you’re married to a Triple Threater. It can be difficult to accurately gauge finish times. Mac (and her mom) waited for nine hours at Paradise, worrying for the men they believed were still wandering half-crazed and malnourished somewhere high on the mountain.

By Triple Threat II: Glacier Peak 2012 the wives are over it. Who can blame them?

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The Triple Threaters get their first view of Glacier Peak from Red Pass.

After Barlow Pass, Michael and I drive on to the trailhead, dozing in the car until headlamps shakily inch up the gravel road. Ten seconds after Sam leans his loaner bike against the truck, the skinny road tire hisses and deflates, worn out after seven miles on gravel washboard.

They trade bike cleats for running shoes and swap the little hydration packs for slightly larger daypacks each stuffed with still more cheeseburgers, doughnuts, fatty hunks of pork, a sleeping bag, small crampons, and ice axe. They eat a cheeseburger; drink more Cherry Coke and bourbon. We lock the bikes behind a giant cedar and begin up the trail. I had been sitting in a car the entire evening, saving my legs for the climb. I’m in decent shape, but I find myself breathing heavy keeping up. Sam hangs back and we discuss things Southerners talk about: gossip, football, barbecue.

Sam’s exhausted, but he’s been here before. Weeks earlier I asked if he’d been training. He said he sees it like this: there’s one large bank account of pain involved. You can either withdraw the pain in small increments over months or you can clear the account all at once during the event. For this adventure, Sam opted for the one-time shopping spree at the Suffer Mart.

Sam grew up in the flat, hot, slow-as-mud world of the Mississippi Delta where two-lane blacktop slices through rowed fields of cotton, corn, and soybean. He ran cross-country in school to escape last-period study hall. He hated the sprint workouts and found that his body would only loosen up when the distance runs ended. So, and it’s hard not to picture Forrest Gump at this point, he kept running. Past antebellum mansions, white clapboard churches, ancient oaks dripping Spanish moss, and old sharecropper cottages into the hazy, shimmering horizon of 90-degree Delta summers.

Later, after college, he grew bored again, quit his summer job in Memphis and bought a one-way plane ticket to Maine. With little more than some skimpy running shorts and a daypack, he hitchhiked to the foot of Mount Katahdin—then ran the Appalachian Trail for 99 straight days back to Georgia.

A few years after that, Sam organized a nonprofit to help rebuild homes following Katrina. A woman from Seattle came down to volunteer and she and Sam fell in love. Feeling the itch to run again, and to raise money for relief efforts on the Gulf Coast, he decided to run 51 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. His mom and new girlfriend Kirsten drove with him. He used a quiver of credit cards to pay for it, and he wore a white T-shirt during his runs with a single phrase handwritten across the front in indelible marker: “I need a sponsor.”

By his ninth marathon, in Napa Valley, California, Sam had generated enough grassroots press to catch the attention of The North Face. They took him on as an ultrarunner athlete and picked up the tab for the 51-50-50 tour.

You might have heard of a similar feat, Dean Karnazes 50-50-50 marathon event. You heard of it because Karnazes has built an empire out of his ultrarunning exploits. Before I knew Sam I once watched Karnazes on prime-time television fielding questions from dumbfounded talk show hosts. In the meantime, Sam was halfway through his 51-50-50. After his accomplishment, Sam faded back into Sam-dom, eventually moving to Seattle with Kirsten, marrying her, and competing internationally as an ultrarunner for The North Face.

It was during the marathon tour that Kirsten, a dietician, decided Sam should drop the standard endurance athlete diet of energy bars and electrolyte drinks. He wasn’t eating enough of it for the simple reason that it tastes terrible. She asked Sam what sounded appetizing and he said cheeseburgers, doughnuts, and Cherry Coke.

That fueled more exploits. Sam and fellow North Face athlete Jimmy Chin once ran 20 miles through the Tahoe high country to procure an emergency box of cupcakes and a dozen helium balloons for a colleague’s birthday. On a bachelor party climb of Mount Shuksan—which Sam completed in Timberland roofer boots and his standard Daisy Duke-length running shorts—he carried a four-pack of mini cabernets. On a Rainier climb with Brock, he walked up the Muir snowfield with all borrowed gear except the running shorts, which were so dainty that his grundle later peeled.

One day, on a whim, he ran 70 miles from Seattle to the state capital of Olympia to make a statement about preserving trails. On another outing he raised awareness about Seattle public libraries by running 65 miles to have a book stamped by all 27 of them.

The willing pursuit of suffering is a powerful, epic exhibition for Sam, each step another assertion of positivity. There seems to be an almost diabolical conviction that propels him. It comes in part from his pain bank account. But that vault is a lonely place. Brock and Sam move through the darkness toward Glacier Peak together, but they are operating alone. Walking with them I wonder if they are fleeing wraiths I can’t see.

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Brock breaks trail on the hike up Glacier Peak’s snowfields.

The trail to White Pass—and eventually Glacier Peak—doesn’t climb for real until the final two miles. Above treeline the air is thick with wildfire smoke that pulses and fades. One breath you taste it and the next smells like the dew-drenched meadow we’re walking through. At 2 a.m. we reach White Pass and crawl into sleeping bags. The alarm goes off two hours later. We’re moving again, now toward Red Pass, through a quiet darkness that brightens to a blue-gray dawn.

At Red Pass, 103 miles from Sam and Brock’s homes, we finally see the mountain they came to climb. Two miles of alpine scree basins and snowfields still separate us from the volcano. Brock continues the charge, jogging when the footing allows, Sam on his tail. After a smashed doughnut break at the base of the final push, we kick steps as best we can with running shoe crampons, weaving between a maze of crevasses near the final summit cone.

Then we’re standing atop the summit of Glacier Peak. To most people, just that—making it to a summit—is enough, but we can barely rein Brock in long enough to stick with us through the crevasses, then he’s off, jogging downhill into the haze. He’s compelled to move at his own pace, even though we are all going back to White Pass, where we’ve planned to rest with a few friends before the boys begin the third leg of the Threat, which involves running around the mountain.

We make it to White Pass by late afternoon to find Brock despondent. He’d arrived an hour earlier to find that the wildfires had closed the east side of the mountain. There might be fires on the trails, and, regardless, Michael and I won’t be able to drive in and drop their supplies on the 130-mile loop. The third leg of the project is out. No Triple Threat.

Brock schemes and rolls a smoke. He takes his mini iPod speakers into the meadow and sings and dances in his BluBlockers, rocking back and forth from foot to foot like a crazed native in a peyote trance. Sam drinks bourbon and annihilates still more cheeseburgers. Returning from his vision dance, Brock wants to push ahead into the smoke. Just make it happen.

Sam never leaves the fir tree he’s leaning against. We pass the bottle and he holds onto it for a bit. The smoke moves up from the valley and paints a jaundiced sky. Sam quietly suggests they run home. Brock clings to the circumambulation through fire plan. An hour passes. Sam again suggests running home. This time it sticks. It’s almost the same distance and it seems more pure. Door-to-door. No call for a pickup.

They wake at 2 a.m. I listen as they fumble. After they leave, Sam predicting his inevitable vomit, I fall back asleep until well past dawn. They could have slept longer, too. There are no rules to abide by. They could have slept off their hangover and started running at 9 a.m. Or ridden in the car with us.

After waking, I pick up a few things Sam and Brock left behind. I realize I’m not here to understand the sheer distance covered, but to witness compulsion. The mathematics of destinationism impresses, and I find myself telling strangers on airplanes or friends I grew up with about these two buddies and their impossible endurance feats. I’ve often trumped someone’s ultramarathon story with the tale of the Triple Threat. Still, being in the moment with them at White Pass illuminated something for me. Even though my buddies are in a zombie-like state, they’re compelled to push on, regardless of the consequences. Each step epitomizes free will.

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Delirium sets in—Brock smiles while Sam refuels at the Green Gables General Store.

Deep in the underworld, Sisyphus stands at the base of the mountain, the giant boulder, his burden and punishment and crutch, resting in front of him. Again, he crouches low, shoves his shoulder into the hard, cold granite, digs his foot into the ground, and pushes upward with the same hopeful motivation of reaching a summit he’s climbed every day and will climb for every day hereafter. He has spurred the gods and tricked Hades, and hard labor is his eternal penance. But there must be a renewal of hope and a yearning for the summit with each inevitable climb. — The parable of Sisyphus 

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” —Albert Camus

Michael and I walk the 10 miles out to the car. We drive Mountain Loop Highway and catch Sam and Brock. Brock moves like a two-legged tank. Sam shuffles behind, face flushed of color. He’d puked, as predicted. His gaze is distant, but he laughs about his discomfort. He says he’ll feel better when they reach Granite Falls and he can eat some french fries. The barbecue sandwich two hours earlier had been a disastrous decision.

We leave them there, their pilgrimage growing harder to watch. They appeared better suited walking deeper into the smoke-filled backcountry. This run back home “trues the loop,” as Brock loves to say, and it bumps this Triple Threat to a new level of pain withdrawal, but in my mind they’re leaving the wilderness too soon. Like a shaman going into the Amazon to find answers, and leaving before figuring it out. The final 20 miles is a straight shot down the sidewalk of Seattle’s seedy, neon-lit, Technicolor hallucination of Aurora Avenue, home to used car lots, strip clubs, and roadside motels supported by prostitution and crack.

A little before midnight they reach the stop sign beside Sam’s house and high-five goodbye. If you spied them from your window you’d think they were your standard type-A suburbanites out for an evening run. Brock continues a few dozen blocks south to his home where Mac might or might not be waiting up.

Sam walks to his house, not knowing whether he should go inside. His liver is secreting toxins, which he’s perspiring out of his system, covering his body in a sticky, foul-smelling fluid. It’s a reaction to the malnourishment and overuse of the three-day fitness binge. Everyone is asleep inside his home. He tries to sleep on the couch but his mind keeps running. In the morning he showers the film from his skin and goes to sing with the church choir.

I see Brock on Sunday. He’s on his beach cruiser, riding alongside Mac and some friends. BluBlockers and a giant smile on his suntanned face. The zombie exorcised. No demons in the shadows.

Endorphins, mind-altering fungi, a Jeremiah Johnson complex—some things are just unknowable. And the why doesn’t matter. Brock and Sam find happiness out there in the dark zone, declaring a party every time the boulder rolls back down the mountain.

From the Summer 2013 issue.

One Response to “Happy Sisyphus”

  1. Justin Gavery

    David and Michael,

    Thank you for an incredible effort to document the insanity of my brother and his southern gentlemen monster man Sam I am..

    Reply

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