I’m excited to share the transcript of a conversation I had with Adam Campbell as part of the inaugural Mammoth Trail Fest, held September 22-25, 2022 in Mammoth Lakes, California. Adam is a world-class athlete who has been a member of the Canadian duathlon, triathlon, mountain running, ultrarunning, skyrunning, and ski mountaineering national teams. He’s lived an interesting life and has experienced some incredible highs, such as world-records and international podiums, but also crushing lows, like a life-threatening fall while running Roger’s Pass in British Columbia in 2016 and the tragic passing of his wife, Laura Kosakoski, from an avalanche in 2020. This was intimate exchange in front of a live audience and we discussed life, sport, loss, grief, guilt, redefining success, and a lot more.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Photos courtesy of Mammoth Trail Fest and Adam Campbell.
Mario Fraioli: I’ve been wanting to have this conversation for a while. Adam and I have been emailing back and forth and I just can’t believe this came together the way that it did. This fireside chat is way better than doing this over Zoom so thank you for taking the time to sit down. It’s an honor to be sitting down with you here this evening. On my drive up here, I was actually listening to a couple podcasts that you did, one with Billy Yang, who’s right here in the audience in front of us, another with Dylan Bowman. And it was interesting, in the conversation with Billy, you weren’t in a great place at all. You have gone through a lot of stuff, which I don’t want to rehash it here tonight, but let’s just say you were trying to figure things out. And in the conversation with Dylan, you had just relocated to Squamish, British Columbia from Canmore, where you were just kind of getting settled and ready to move forward. That conversation with Dylan was earlier this year, so probably, I don’t know, eight months ago at this point. So, where you at right now at the end of September of 2022?
Adam Campbell: Yeah, no, that’s a good question. The reason I relocated from Canmore is my wife died a few years ago and Canmore was just… It’s really, really, really heavy. Canmore’s a very small mountain town and even though it was an incredibly supportive community, there were just constant reminders of her everywhere and I was just finding that to be very difficult. So, I wanted a change. I definitely needed to move to a different community and I wanted to go somewhere where I already had a lot of roots and I had a lot of family in Squamish. And also, I wanted to go somewhere there was really good skiing and Squamish happens to have very good skiing as well as really good climbing. Those things are really important to me and they give me a sense of grounding. But one thing, moving from Canmore which is a really mountain town, even though it’s really cold in the winters, it’s very sunny there in the Rockies, whereas Squamish is just kind of classic raining. It’s a different kind of cold and I hadn’t really factored in just how difficult I’d find that to be, especially even emotionally difficult to go somewhere. And then, also, I hadn’t really counted on small details. Like, when I’d go into a convenience store in Canmore, I knew the guy that worked behind the counter. Like, walking on the street, I recognize everybody. Even though there was a heaviness to that, it’s also like a level of support. I’m kind of missing that a little bit in Squamish, but once the sun finally came out in about June, and everybody started to come back out, I started to feel a bit more grounded there. So, I’d say I’m in a really good place at the moment.
MF: Have you been back to Canmore at all since you left?
AC: I haven’t yet, no. I still own a home there and I do have to go back in October and I am looking forward to it. I really miss it. The Canadian Rockies are spectacular. Canmore is a really beautiful place and I have lots of good friends. Also, I do have some trepidation to go back as well, yeah.
MF: Has it helped to just be in a new environment and not have those memories constantly reminding you of Laura and just your life in Canmore that the two of you had together?
AC: Yeah. I’d say it has been good. It has helped me quite a lot. I still obviously have a lot of heaviness and I really miss her a lot constantly. And we did spend quite a lot of time in Squamish as well in the mountains, so I do have reminders there. But it’s nice to not just constantly be in it. And by being in the home that Laura and I built together, like the accent walls and the shelves, I really don’t care about all that stuff. But, that was something that was really important to her. So, those little details were hard to be just constantly in that environment. So, yeah, not being in that constantly, sort of allows me to step in and out a little bit more and just allows me to just try to start again basically, is probably the best way of describing it.
MF: Where are you at athletically right now? Because prior to Laura’s passing, just years before that, four years before that, you had a terrible accident where you fell, broke your back and a lot of other bones. You have a lot of rods in your body. But you did come back and you did do Hardrock, and I know you had ambitions of running one of the events here this weekend but I saw on Strava that you tweaked your calf you aren’t going to be able to participate. But aside from that—let’s just call it hazards of turning 40, or being over 40—where are you at athletically? Like, what place does running and just mountain sports and adventures have in your life right now?
AC: I mean, they’re super important to me. Yeah, so there is a large climate of competition and a side that is more adventurous. In the winter, I spend most of my time skiing and skiing powder in the middle of the winter and then ski mountaineering in the spring and quite a lot of ice climbing and rock climbing, just moving in the mountains, really it comes down to what is the logical thing to do given the season, given what the weather conditions have and it’s a very, very important aspect of my life for sure. It really largely defines me. But I injured myself dancing, of all things. I went to a party and I danced for about five hours and apparently my body can’t dance for five hours and then try to run the next day.
MF: Hazards of being over 40.
AC: Exactly, yeah, so maybe I need to learn how to keep my feet on the ground when I’m dancing a bit more in the future. Yeah, so running is just hard for me at the moment. There was a time when I was a world-class runner and I was able to compete at the highest level and I just can’t do that anymore. I can’t do speed work, I can’t run on the flats. I can go uphill and I can move in the mountains fine, but flat running is… Speed comes from putting impact forces into the ground and I just can’t do that without getting injured. I miss that, I miss being able to go and hammer it hard. But, also, I’m grateful for the things I’m still able to do. The accident that I had should’ve killed me. It was just pure dumb luck that I survived, nothing I did helped that. It was just very fortunate the way I fell. I did break my back and I did break my hip and ankle, but it happened to break in a way that I’m not paralyzed. I’m still able to do an awful lot and I’m still able to do it at a reasonably competent level. And I have deep gratitude for that. Yeah, so even though I miss feeling fast, I’m really happy to be able to do what I can do.
MF: Did it take you a while to reclaim that gratitude after the accident, to accept that, “Okay, I’m probably not going to able to do this at the level that I was used to doing it in the past?”
AC: No, because I was just so grateful to have survived the accident. I mean I fell like over 200 feet and I was really conscious of the fact that like… I was wearing a helmet and the helmet was shattered. I still have it. And it was just horrible and really traumatic for the people that were there, Dakota Jones and Nick Elson. And so, the gratitude was instant. It was also really humbling when the accident first happened, well, I mean, it still is because up to that point, I sort of had this, I don’t know, big notion that I was self-sufficient. I was a mountaineer, I’d run across mountains and I’d also come off…I’d actually been divorced a few years before that just had a traumatic divorce and I was really running away from a lot of things at the time and just wasn’t dealing with my problems. I was 30 years old at the time and I just didn’t have a big emotional toolkit. During that time, I lost the ability to use my body, so I lost the one coping mechanism that I had. I had to learn basically how to face my demons and fears, who I was in other ways, so I started doing a lot more sketching and writing at the time. And then also my friends and family drove hours across the country to come and see me. And I was relying on nurses and strangers to do very simple tasks—literally I couldn’t wipe my ass—so, that’s just humbling. Again, I’m just like a mountain man and I’d just run across a mountain range, and the next day literally, I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t support my own weight. I had metal rods in my back. So, it’s really humbling to go through that.
MF: Pulling on that string a little bit, what did that do for your identity? Because basically, from the time that you were like 18 years old, I know you were first pretty competitive in triathlons for a little while before really getting into mountain sports. You just mentioned you’re a professional athlete, world-class athlete up until your accident. That was a big part of your identity, who you were, how you made a living and then it was gone, just like that. And you had immense gratitude for just being alive and now being able to move, but has it been challenging for you to reconcile the identity part of that? Like, you were just mentioning, I am Adam, mountain man, athlete. This is who I am, this is what I do, this is how I make a living. And then, to not really have that…
AC: To some degree, but I also just once again, as I say, I just have really… I shifted my focus and I was spending a lot more time with my family, with Laura who helped me through that whole period. She was a doctor, she was actually finishing medical school at the time, and she took a leave to help me recover and just had this really incredible connection through that time. We started traveling and traveling without a race in mind or a specific agenda or objective. We traveled down to Guatemala. She went down to work in Guatemala and I went down with her. And I was starting to learn how to walk again. We would go walking in the hills around Guatemala. Ended up going over to Europe. And it was just going with a completely different fresh focus. It was really nice to reclaim that. And then, slowly regaining strength over the time as well and then get back into the mountains and see it in a whole different light. One thing I was able to do while I was… As I say, I took up sketching, and just rather than moving across the mountains, being forced to like sit there and look at the mountains in a whole ‘nuther way, I actually found a new climbing route they ended up putting out the following year. I just sat at the base of the mountain rather than traveling through it, so just having a deep appreciation for not moving and learning how to not move has been an incredible gift for sure. I still love moving though.
MF: Did your relationship with sport change at all during that time? Because a lot of your friends, they’re still your friends, are competing at that level. I mean, you’re here at this event, which is great, and I know you’ve done some other events. Was there a period of time where you’re like, “I just can’t pay attention to the sport.” I mean, you’re obviously concerned about just getting yourself back to full strength, but were you following the sport at all for a while? Or, did you just kind of need to move it aside?
AC: No, I still follow the sport and I love following the sport. I get really excited for my friends and I get a lot of motivation watching people go and do these incredible things. It’s a really exciting time in the sport. There’s a big shift happening, it’s becoming more and more professional, athletes are learning how to train for these races, times are getting faster. Someone just ran almost 200 miles in 24 hours—that’s nuts. Or like 21 hours for Hardrock and under 20 hours at UTMB. Those are unbelievable times and I love following that stuff. But, I just haven’t felt the need to race, and maybe that’s ego, and honestly maybe just the fact that I’m not willing to toe the line and not win and I’m okay with that, but I’m also maybe a little afraid, I don’t know. So I haven’t really faced it, if I’m being fully honest.
MF: Yeah. To pull on that thread a little bit more, I mean, when you were first getting into the sport at an elite level, it was very different than it is now. I mean, just the caliber of athletes were different, the number of events was much smaller, the depth of those events was much smaller. Just as someone who’s been in the sport for a long time, what are some biggest changes that you’ve seen over the past 10 to 15 years?
AC: Well, I’d say like the rise of UTMB was a major shift. The first time I ran CCC was 2011, or the only time I’ve run it, and I came in second at it. That was, I think, the first year Kilian won it. No, I think he won it maybe the year before, but like there was the whole Salomon team house at the time and started to really see a big shift happening then. And now that they’re trying to broadcast races live, it’s incredible. Broadcasting trail running and it’s in real time, because we used to follow Twitter and have to refresh it every 20 minutes and maybe get a live update. So, I’d say that shift is happening. Seeing also like the big commercialization of the events, in some regards, it’s amazing. And then, you still have a lot of the amazing grassroots events as well, so I think that’s an interesting shift happening.
MF: Does the growth and commercialization of it worry you at all?
AC: Not necessarily, so long as there are still grassroots events, you can sort of pick what you want to do. There are new races coming up, races like this which are amazing community events and things that are really worth supporting. And I think if you’re willing to do a little bit of digging and do a deep dive into websites and find out what’s happening, you can find really cool events. And then if you want sort of a standardized adventure and a well-supported, well-run race, those exist as well and I think that that’s totally OK.
MF: At the top level of the sport there are more athletes now that can make a living doing it than there was 10 years ago, certainly 15 years ago. How has the job description for professional athletes changed in the time that you’ve been involved in the sport?
AC: Yeah, so that’s a really interesting question. Well, I mean, starting out when I was an 18-year-old triathlete, the only thing that mattered was race events. Like, that was basically it and in my contracts at the time if you finished on the podium at a certain race, you’ve got X amount of money and then maybe if you were on the cover of the magazine you’d get a bonus. Now, people are actually getting these pretty large base salaries. Interestingly, prize money is not really a thing in trail running in a really sustainable way.
You can win some money at events, but it’s not really a way of making a living. All the living seems to be coming from sponsorships, which is… That’s money. And then, also, being able to make a living as social media star, influencer of sorts and to make a living that way in the sport and sort of the lifestyle aspect, I think is kind of cool. The other thing I think we’re going to see start to happen and it’s going to turn a little bit, like other lifestyle sports like skiing and surfing, where you’re going to have your competitive side of the sport and then “soul running” so people who are just going to play in the mountains and move in the mountains and tell stories that way. And I think that that’s going to be an interesting shift in dynamic and both are incredibly valid and inspiring in their own way.
MF: I think we’re definitely seeing that now especially with the rise of bigger events and a lot of those events come here to the U.S. and trying to come to the U.S. That is a good analogy. I read Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan, about surfing and it was just interesting to read that. I was like, “Wow, you could sub in trail running or ultrarunning for surfing in here and like a lot of the book would still hold true.”
AC: Yeah, no, absolutely. I do think any of these lifestyle sports, that’s going to be the case. The competitive side of it is awesome. It’s really, really cool to see the other limits of what humans are capable of. It’s also a great way for people to go and travel and go see new areas they may not think of going to. And then there’s moving through the mountains and learning about where your personal limits are. I also think it’s really cool that you can take the same sporting activity and then go and draw your own line, go and find your own routes that are there, go and look at ridge lines or link up different hiking trails and see how fast you can do them. They’re both really amazing aspects of the sport.
MF: What is your current role? I mean, you’re still an athlete, you still have a relationship with Arc’teryx. You were just there, you were just in Portland helping them out. What are you up to from the “athlete side” of things?
AC: I’ve kind of evolved a little bit as an athlete, so these days, I’m much more into like alpinism and ski mountaineering. One, because I can still do them at a somewhat competitive A-level, but most of my role these days as an athlete is more in product development and product design and insights. So, I’m really fortunate. I mean, I’ve been an athlete with Arc’teryx since 2007. That’s a really long time to be with a brand.
MF: That’s almost unheard of.
AC: Yeah, exactly. So, at this stage, I’m the third longest, or oldest… Not the third oldest, I’m the third longest-serving athlete there after a couple ice climbers. So, it’s really neat to have that… I’ve been there longer than almost any employee at the company, so I also have really good insight, or insights into the culture and history of the brand. And the product development stuff is really, really fun.
MF: A little while ago, you mentioned how you still like to just ski mountains and explore and be outside. Do you foresee yourself setting any competitive goals? That doesn’t necessarily mean like podiuming at a race, but maybe it’s like tackling a route that you’ve always wanted to tackle or like stringing some things to see if you can do it, that sort of thing.
AC: Oh for sure. I mean, I have a lifetime list of things I’d like to do. Yeah, I mean, last year, for instance, a couple friends and I, we did this ski traverse and it was called the Rogers Pass ski traverse. It’s like 90 miles and 30,000 feet or maybe 40,000 feet of really, really technical skiing. We did that in a push of 40 or 50 hours. So, yeah, it’s a really long ski traverse on technical mountain terrain. And then, a bunch of other more climbing link ups, so taking I guess my mountaineering routes and seeing if you can do them fast. So taking a trail running mindset to ski mountaineering and climbing, I really enjoy that.
MF: What you make of just cross-over sports, where it seems like a lot of folks who are in trail and ultrarunning now are doing other things throughout the year, whether it’s ski mountaineering in the winter, gravel riding in the off-season? Do you think that’s going to become just part of the culture being an outdoor athlete, and not just defining yourself as an ultrarunner?
AC: Oh, no, I 100% think so, especially if you’re living in mountain towns, you kind of need to embrace things like winter. And as much as you want to be able to go skiing in the winter and cross-country skiing, and ski touring and just post-holing for six hours. So, I do think this will be a natural evolution of the mountain athlete. Also, I think you run on the trails long enough and maybe eventually, you start to get curious. It’s like, “What if I go off this trail a little bit, a little bit off the beaten path. That sense of adventure and curiosity drives a lot of us in these ultra-endurance sports and I think that that’s just an extension of it.
MF: To bring it back to you, and where you’re at right now, you had the accident in 2016, you lost your wife, Laura, in 2020. Traumatic events, there’s grief that comes along with that. How has your relationship with grief evolved over the last several years?
AC: Grief is something that it’s just with you all the time and it’s not necessarily that it… You just integrate it into life. When Laura first died, it was a horrible accident. It was an avalanche that I was there for and it took us an hour and a half to get to her and she didn’t have a pulse. She died the next day, and I triggered the avalanche, so it was a lot of guilt associated with that and then there’s also just the trauma of the incident and then the grief of actually losing Laura. In the initial days, it was just really, really deep, heavy thoughts and that lasted for months. I just basically didn’t sleep for four months and then, COVID was also happening at the time, so it was a really, really isolating time. And then, as time progressed, you start to try to regain your footing. I really, really began leaning heavily on friends and community. And they slowly helped me find my footing again. And actually being out in the mountains was a huge source of comfort because Laura and I did a lot of climbing and skiing together. She was a wonderful mountaineer and skier. It wasn’t about skiing big lines or anything, it was just about being in the mountains and really feeling her presence there.
MF: Do you still feel her presence there?
AC: Oh yeah, very much so and when I look up at the night sky and the stars and yeah, I definitely see her in nature’s beauty really. I mean, any beautiful moment like that her presence is there with me. And I’ve also done a lot of and I continue to do a lot of self work. I spend a lot of time in therapy and counseling and I’m still writing quite a bit, and just finding outlets. It comes in waves. There’s times when it’s really heavy. It’s no longer quite as big a shock but some things still kind of catch me off-guard. I’m not just constantly living in it these days, which is, it is helpful for sure.
But then, last November, I started another relationship with somebody and that ended quite suddenly and unexpectedly for me. I’d gone back to Canmore after being away and I hadn’t actually gone to counseling for a few months. And I just had a full collapse and actually ended up trying to take my own life at the time. And that was a really big wake-up call for me that I just can’t take a vacation from it. You know what I mean? The second I tried to take some time away from it, because you don’t want to just constantly live in that state. And if I’m not addressing it, in a healthy way, it does sort of gain strength inside me and get heavy.
MF: I appreciate you sharing that. I think that’s why they call grieving a process and it’s a process that… I mean, it never really ends. You’re never going to arrive somewhere and like, “OK, it’s all better.” But, as time goes on, hopefully, the space between those tough moments lengthen a bit, or maybe the tough moments aren’t as tough as they were initially. It sounds like you’re heading in that direction.
AC: Yeah, for sure. I think you just develop better coping mechanisms over time. And I didn’t actually want to forget. I don’t want to forget Laura. She was an incredible person. And I can’t think of anything more sad than forgetting. It’s not just strength. Grief is just part of the human experience as well. You have love, you have grief, you have loss, you have… I’ve led a very charmed life in a lot of ways and I’ve had incredible life experiences. But I’ve also had really, really profound loss. I’ve run the full gamut of life’s emotions, for sure.
MF: I think we’ve all been there in our own ways. I don’t think you can really appreciate those incredible moments without some really low ones and then, vice versa as well. I mean, you never know how low you are until you experience the top of your mountain, so to speak.
AC: And then, I actually committed myself to a mental institution last November because I really needed to address this stuff. If I don’t, or I try to compromise this process, I’m just going to end up back in the hospital. I just saw that happening to myself. There’s nothing stranger than waking up in a psych ward. Like, “How am I here?” But, even when I was there though, there were beautiful moments as well, just like beautiful sunrises, I would go out and stare at. I got to be able to see beauty in these really, really dark, strange places. I also had incredible interactions with some of the other patients that were there and with people who have very, very hard, hard lives. Some very young people as well, who are in for a lifetime of difficulty and just had these really deep conversations with some of them and that was just really, really touching.
MF: Did that experience serve as a bit of a turning point or catalyst to help you really move forward and have that outlook?
AC: I think I already had that outlook. It was just a reminder that I need to constantly check in and I need to do a lot of self-care, and just be very honest about that. It really reinforced that.
MF: Last question on grief. Was there ever a moment or a specific moment where you realized or told yourself, “Adam, this is really hard, but it’s going to be okay. You’re going to be able to move forward from this?” Is that something you have to remind yourself of regularly still?
AC: Oh no. I mean, I’m actually generally an optimist. I do generally think that it’s going to be OK, but life’s also hard. It’s also OK that life’s hard. I mean, it’s important to be honest with yourself about that. Like, this is going to sound really cheesy, but anybody running the 50K this weekend, you’re going to have really wonderful moments, you’re going to have really hard moments. And I think being okay with that, knowing that you’re going to have them helps you prepare for when they’re there. And it’s OK that that’s hard and there’s moments that are just kind of shitty. I think just being OK with the fact that life can be shitty in that moment and having the coping mechanism and knowing that you’re going to eventually get through it. Just like navigating that rough patch in the 50K.
MF: I’m glad you said that. It reiterates what Tim said at the top of this program here. I mean, there are going to be people who DNF this weekend, who aren’t able to make the cut off or hit the finish line or just have hard days. That’s just part of it and it’s OK. You will be able to move forward from that. You will be able to learn something from that and what you just talked about a few moments ago, when you have that breaking moment, somewhere down the road, you’ll be able to appreciate it.
AC: Yeah, absolutely, for sure.
MF: Talk to me a bit about coping mechanisms. You mentioned how running—or sport, for you, in general—was your primary, your only coping mechanism for a long time. If you had problems you would just try to run away [from them]. And after the accident, you weren’t able to do that. You had to develop new tools and sharpen them. I’m interested in what that process looks like for you now, the ongoing process of just continuing to work on those tools, using sport as one of them. Could just go a little bit deeper into some of the other tools that you’ve had to develop to get through some tough times? Because I feel like there are a lot of athletes who use sport for that reason. That’s their coping mechanism, their way to run away from problems, that sort of thing. And we know that’s not sustainable, it’s not a healthy way to go through life. I think it’d be helpful if you could describe your processes a little bit.
AC: Yeah. I mean, one is just find things that you like and enjoy doing those things. Maybe it’s spending time with family, playing music, playing video games, whatever it is. I think escapism is OK. I think having forms of escapism are healthy, but then also having to process what you’re going through and analyze yourself and asking yourself. Vulnerability can actually bring a huge benefits and having a conversation like this, honest conversations with people has been one of the real silver linings in all this—just have very real conversations with people. And I’ve found that when we’re honest with people and being able to open up and share, just like really sharing your pain, and you end up having these deep connections with people through those conversations, and that’s really, really special. I think the more that we normalize mental health and challenges and personal struggle, because everybody has to deal with something at some point, and I think the more honest we are with ourselves, with each other, the better we all will be as a community.
MF: Well, I thank you for that here in this conversation. I really admire that about you. The two podcasts that I referenced previously, one with Billy and the one with Dylan, you were just so raw and honest. I remember I texted Dylan right after listening to that. I was in the car when I listened to it, but the first time, I was like, “Wow, that was just like a powerful conversation.” I haven’t been through half the stuff that you have, but hearing you talk about how you had to develop these tools and not just rely on the one that you’ve relied on for so long. To me, personally, to listen to that conversation, to read your blog—which I hope you update a little more regularly because I haven’t gotten one in quite a while—but, you’re an incredible writer and you have a way of sharing the human experience, your human experience that I think a lot of us have experienced for ourselves. And it helps. It does, whether it’s you or someone else, it helps people feel less alone and gives them hope that, “OK, things are going to be OK.” Or, it helps them to reach out for help because I think that’s hard for a lot of us to do. We like to think of ourselves as people who can do it on our own and that’s just not how we get through life.
AC: Oh for sure. And the other thing with some of the coping mechanisms, I mean, like after Laura died, I’d go cross-country skiing, and I’d just primal scream in the woods for a little bit and that was an incredible release. And then, I got to go and just sit with friends. I was literally just sitting with friends and to be crying, laughing and just having these very feral or just emotional releases, that to me was just really, really great. The other thing is I was just so raw and broken. I just stopped caring about social niceties at the time. I walked into one of the bookstores in Canmore and kind of weirdly, I picked up a book of poems and the opening line was, “Give me back my beautiful wife,” and I just collapsed. I just collapsed in the middle of the store and the store owner knew Laura and me. And he came over and he picked me up. It’s like life has these very weird, I don’t know. Things happen. I was just so raw at the time and so I just really learned to just go with the flow of where I was at in those dark heavy times and just ask for help as well. I tried to kill myself in November. I basically walked upstairs and swallowed a bunch of pills on the counter. And the second I did that, I was in our bathroom and I looked up at this IKEA mirror on the wall that Laura had chosen, and I saw myself. It was 9 o’clock in the morning, I hadn’t slept in three or four days. My brain was starting to go crazy and I just needed an outlet and I actually started the blog at that point. I just looked up in the mirror and I saw my reflection and instantly, I said, “Oh my God, I’ve made a horrible mistake.” I ran over to my neighbor’s house and just banged on her window. She came to my help and then a bunch of first responders who were also friends of mine in town. I needed help. Those were some really, really dark, raw moments, and if I hadn’t reached out and gotten that help, I wouldn’t be here today.
MF: I think it was after that post that I reached out to you, but if I remember correctly, the title of it was, “I fucked up, I’m sorry, I love you,” or something along those lines. Is that how you felt immediately afterwards when you looked into that mirror?
AC: Yeah, no, absolutely, it was, and I instantly felt sad for my friends and for my family, putting them through that. The thing is, I didn’t actually want to die, I just didn’t want to feel pain. And I think that that’s a really important thing for a lot of people that are really struggling in those dark moments is you don’t actually—it’s not necessarily death, it’s just, it’s one outlet and one tool that you have to be able to and in the moment, you kind of stop thinking logically and creatively and that just seems like the best available tool to use to stop the pain and the hurt that you’re going through. So, I lost my ability to tap into my coping mechanisms and I should’ve called a friend in that moment and I just didn’t. I made a bad choice and I also can’t beat myself up about it because I’m sorry for that, but I was in a shitty, shitty place and I have a lot of pity and empathy for myself in that moment because it was very raw. And in this moment, I’m not in that place, but I very easily could get back there as well and I’m aware of that. So, yeah, allowing those emotions to flow through me and process them and deal with them and not get beaten down by them as well, is really I think are some of the coping mechanisms and what the process has looked like.
MF: Another word you mentioned earlier was guilt, specifically tied to Laura’s passing, and I know just from other conversations I’ve listened to with you, and things that you’ve written in your blog, that you felt guilt about subjecting your friends and partners who had been with you during the accident, and then when you took the pills, calling them and having them have to help you. Is guilt something that you have to live with every day? Have you been able to squash that a bit? What’s your relationship to it like now?
AC: That’s a good question. I’m trying to be OK with it. Because the avalanche that happened, I made a mistake. I couldn’t have known that the slope was going to go the way that it did. You can’t predict these things, but I definitely made a mistake and it had the worst possible outcome and consequence. So, I do feel a sense of responsibility for that accident, but I also, I can’t go back and change what I did that day, all I can do is try to be the best person I can be. I think we’re all always trying to do that. I am very, very conscious that my choices to go into the mountains and do these somewhat dangerous things at times do have repercussions potentially on people beyond me and they have deep impact on my family and friends—like at Rogers Pass, Nick and Dakota, they thought they were watching their friend die. That’s incredibly horrible. They saw me fall. That’d be incredibly traumatic and then also the search and rescuers, they had to extract me. It was a very dangerous search and rescue, so they put themselves at risk.
So, I am very aware of my choices, having these long tentacles, basically. But, at the same time, these activities and these choices also bring me a lot of pleasure and they fill my soul with a lot of joy. So, balancing the risk-reward in those scenarios is something that I’m constantly wrestling with. And I do lay it out before I go and do something that’s somewhat risky or something big, I do have conversations with my friends and family about it. And they’ll really, really check my motivation to make sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons because when I had my accident at Rogers Pass, I was definitely doing it for the wrong reasons. It was a very ego-driven objective. It was right after a break up, I was trying to run away from some problems at the time and I was just making bad choices. So, when I go on to do something that is objectively somewhat dangerous, I really check in and and I’m like, “Do I actually want to do this right now? Do I want to make this next step?” I think that, once again, that’s just being very honest with yourself and with your partners as well. There’s something about encouraging conversations between your group members and people that you’re out with, and once again, I think that honesty with people in your community is really valuable.
MF: To take a step back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago—vulnerability—and just being open and honest and sharing your story on podcasts, through blog posts, articles, whatever, not that you’re doing any of that for a reaction at all, but I know that you hear from people after that stuff is put out into the world. What has that response been like from folks who have listened to your story, read your words and just connected with what you’ve put out into the world?
AC: I’d say 99.9% of it is very, very positive, and very open. People have shared their stories of grief and of personal struggle with me. I cherish it when somebody chooses to open up to you and make space for you in their life and share and be vulnerable to you. I really took a lot of time to think about it and try to respond and, once again, show gratitude to them and just let them know that they’re being heard. But, it’s also kind of heavy sometimes. I’m not a grief expert. I’m dealing with my own stuff and there are times when I get these messages from people and I’m not a trained therapist and I tell them that.
MF: That’s what I was wondering: If it weighs heavy on your shoulders to hear these things that people will share with you? And it comes from a good place, but it’s heavy stuff and it may be triggering for you.
AC: It can definitely be triggering at times, for sure. But I also choose to make myself public and that’s a slight consequence of that and that’s OK. And I’m willing to help if I feel like I can help that person in a small way, it also maybe if I’m being very honest about it, it may also just help me alleviate some of that guilt and to make sense of what I’ve gone through and it gives it a sense of purpose. I think we’re all kind of striving for a sense of purpose, so even though I can’t undo what’s happened, if I can help anybody else with some of the life lessons and things I’ve gone through, then maybe it makes it not OK, but it gives it a sense of purpose.
MF: I have two questions left for you as we wind this down. The first is about the sport. What about trail and ultrarunning right now, in 2022, is exciting you the most?
AC: Well, this weekend’s race. It’s amazing. It’s really cool. I’ve been really fortunate to travel around the world. I’ve been to six continents, which is kind of amazing. And the fact that I get to come to these amazing mountain towns and a new setting like this and meet new communities and meet new people is rad, and the fact that people want to put on the races. Just the fact that people go out and put on events, host events, volunteer at events, I love that. And I love meeting new people as well in the sport. And the fact that this is somebody’s first 50K race, that’s so cool. That’s amazing that people like Tim are giving people this experience and that’s rad, and that people want to sign up for them and challenge themselves, and that’s super exciting. The high end of the sport is awesome. Like, it’s cool that people are doing these incredible things, but I think the fact that people are signing up for events, challenging themselves, that’s awesome.
MF: I’ll piggyback off that. I love what Tim’s done here with the format, that there’s kind of a mid-distance type of race, there’s a really long challenging race and then there’s a hill climb, which is still hard, but shorter on the distance side. And that can be a gateway for a lot of people to challenge themselves in a new way and then come out of it asking themselves like, “What else is possible? What else is out there that I can tackle?” And events like this are great for that.
AC: I’m going to push back on that one a little bit, because that’s where you’re making the assumption that the long distance race is the evolution of it. I think the fact that there was this focus on shorter-distance, fast races, I think we actually need to emphasize those races more. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a 200-mile. Those things are cool, that’s really rad, but short fast racing is amazing.
MF: Oh I’m with you, man. That’s my background. I’d much rather see that. I mean, I love seeing at like at Broken Arrow, the 26K there, was the marquee race. I mean, that’s where all the depth was and that’s great. Ultrarunning, it’s awesome and it’s challenging but, yeah, I’m with you. I mean, I’d love to see just more competitive short distance trail running getting certainly some of the attention at the elite level, but also for people who are coming into it, you don’t necessarily have to move up if you don’t want to. There are different ways that you can challenge yourself. I’m glad you challenged me on that.
AC: The other thing I like as well, I like the fact that it’s a 26K race. I love the fact that you pick a logical route around the mountain. You don’t need to round it up to some arbitrary 20-mile number, 50K number. It’s like this is the way that this route goes and the number is the number. That, to me, is actually the way that mountain races should be. It should be a logical beautiful run.
MF: It’s kind of like cross-country, is what it reminds me of. I mean, just to go off on a little bit of a tangent, here in the U.S., we run cross-country. This is my background and sort of what I’m focusing on myself as an athlete right now, mostly like manicured courses and there are set courses like 5K and 10K. If you go to Europe, or elsewhere in the world, cross-country is exactly what you described. They’re going to do a lap around this park or we’re going to do multiple laps around this park because we don’t care if it’s 2K exactly or 2.3K or whatever it works out to. So, I’m with you on that.
AC: Exactly, yeah. That, to me, is what mountain travel is all about: looking for beautiful lines, looking for inspiring routes and how far they are isn’t necessarily important.
MF: Last question is on you. What do you have coming up that you’re excited about or hope to be working towards in the coming months or years?
AC: Powder. Ski season. I got excited driving in and seeing some snow on the peaks here. The one thing about ski touring and ski mountaineering is it’s the easiest thing on my body. So, as I say, I love, love, love running and I really miss running smoothly and efficiently with flow but my body just can’t handle it. I have a pin in my hip, I’ve broken my ankle multiple times and like my thoracic spine doesn’t really move like it used to. I have a rod still in my back but running just doesn’t feel the way it once did and unfortunately, I still kind of hold on to the feeling that it did, like when I could run smoothly and fast and running sub-five minute miles. It was really fun to run fast .I just can’t run with that kind of flow or consistency without my body just breaking down, even though I spend a lot of time working on mobility and strength and trying to supplement it. I should probably drop my mileage, that’d probably be the real answer, but it’s skiing and ski touring and cross-country skiing are a lot more gentle on my body, so I’m really looking forward to ski season.
MF: OK. I have one more question. Is there anything else that gives you that feeling that going fast does? Can you replicate it in other ways or is it unique to running?
AC: Well, I mean, from a very young age I was considered a fast runner. So, I think that there was an identity tied up in it. Like, as a young kid running around the block, I’d win the races or I’d win running the lap around the school. So, I think maybe I miss the identity of be a fast runner. But, yeah, cross-country skiing and back-country skiing, or hiking uphill fast, I definitely get the same sense of challenging myself, for sure. These days, I’ve recently gotten quite into like sport climbing and bouldering, which are completely different styles of challenging yourself, but it’s fun to sort of watch the grades and all that.
MF: Adam, thank you so much for this conversation, for your openness. Thanks to all of you for sitting here and listening to the two of us chat. I hope everyone has a great weekend.
AC: Thanks for what you do as well. I love your podcast. I’ve listened to it for quite a long time and it’s really inspiring what you do. Thanks a lot for having me here and good luck to everybody racing and good luck to you as well in your run.