As 2014’s Matterhorn Ultraks comes to a close, it’s worth taking a look back at a remarkable story behind the scenes from last year, involving Jim Maddock from Run the Alps. We thought you’d enjoy this story of what happens when you have one of those days, when everything falls beautifully in to place.
This is a story about a friend from my town of Randolph, New Hampshire. But, really, it’s a story about what I think of as one of those rare, fleeting moments in life when everything aligns perfectly, and the results are nothing short of ecstatic. It’s also a story about the remarkable things that can happen when you’re not looking.
Not many folks have heard about Randolph, New Hampshire. It’s no Boulder, Moab, or Flagstaff. The population is 310. We have Lowe’s general store, the Grand View Motel, a town hall and a library. Every year, thousands of drivers cruise through at 65 mph on US Route 2. Few of them even know there’s a town there, hidden in the forest. An area hiking guide calls Randolph, “A mountain hamlet.”
But those few who live here, love it. Randolph has over 100 miles of trails in town, a 10,000-acre community forest, and some of the most rugged mountain terrain in the country right as its front yard, where the town’s southern border meets Mounts Adams and Madison in the Northern Presidential Range of the White Mountains. To the north, twenty miles of forest stretch to the next road crossing, in a swath of land called the Great North Woods.
Randolph also has the Maddock family, the most active genetically-related collection of people I’ve ever met. There’s Kathy and Jenna, both nationally-ranked ski racers. There’s Jamie, the Delta pilot who cranks out century bike rides between hops on Airbus’ A320. There’s octogenarian Steve with his two new knees, cranking through New Hampshire’s 48, 4000-footers when many people his age are fighting to stay on the sunny side of the earth. For decades, their family vacations were spent ticking off run-hikes of the 23 mile-long Presidential Range traverse, including fabled Mount Washington, the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.” When Jamie shows up in town, my phone usually rings. “Hey, what are you doing?” a breathless voice cuts to the chase. “Wanna go for a run?”
Last summer, Jamie’s 21-year old son Jim joined me in Switzerland, as several of us trail ran our way through the Alps, searching for secret gems and expansive views, for upcoming trail running tours. It proved to be everything I could have hoped for—high huts, unique races, cloistered, ancient mountain villages, and no shortage of some of the best alpine running to be found anywhere. We found everything we had gone in search of an more. We had our adventures, the work got done, and we all returned home happy, strong, and brimming with stories.
We ran trail races, too, from world-famous classics like Sierre-Zinal to village events finishing with wine at the neighborhood mountain hut. Jim, short on time, ran a single race—the 31 km Matterhorn Ultraks, whose 46-km long big brother is part of the Sky Running series. The media spotlight was on this longer event, which featured the likes of Kilian Jornet, Emilie Forsberg, and a dozen others who go by first-name only among the mountain-ultra-trail cognoscenti.
The best story of that day, however, was hidden in the 31k. The kid from New Hampshire finished 9th in a field that included some of the world’s best runners: Emmanuel Vaudan, who once held the world record for the Vertical Kilometer. Veteran British runner Martin Cox. And six other sponsored, hardened pros, several of who are well-known ski mountaineering racers, as well.
Was it the rigorous training? Not exactly. In fact, prior to his landing in Geneva, Jim had hardly been running at all. Busy at the University of Washington, his free time was focused on bike racing, where he road raced three times a week. A week before showing up, he realized he’d better get out for a few runs. He laced up his Salomons twice.
The day of the race, I was across the Alps, trail running with friends in the Bernese Oberland. After his run, Jim dashed off an email.
The first climb was pretty challenging given that everyone was fresh and moving pretty quickly. I started towards the back, so I was passing people most of the way… I was mostly hanging with the same people until the technical descent, where I was able to outpace everyone I was with by a huge margin, and I didn’t see any of them again. Then we did the final climb, which was BRUTAL, although I passed a bunch more people. The summit was at 10k to go, at which point it was almost all downhill into Zermatt. I was completely alone for that section, which was weird.
Jim ran hard. No doubt about it. He continued, “It was a pretty intense. I’m totally glad I did it, but I’m not sure I’m up for another one this year given how much pain I was in by the end.” Not enough pain, though, to prevent recording a wry memory. “Only the Swiss would put out cheese at feed stations.”
How does it happen? How does someone pick a race with world-class trail runners, sign up on a whim– and come in 9th? Many of us might attribute it to causality. Jim is young, incredibly, fit, and trains hard. A childhood spent speed hiking through the mountains plays a part. Part of the answer might border what the psychologist Carl Jung called synchronicity. The seeming coincidence of Jim finding himself at Ultraks, with the mindset of an elite-level competitor and the VO2 to match, might be less coincidental than we imagine. Finally, there’s room for plenty of old-fashioned luck in the universe, too. When race day arrived, Jim was ready to go. Whatever the factors that came together on that last August, the result was one of those rare, beautiful, harmonious moments in one’s life when everything falls into place.
This past winter, Jim’s story would come back to me while I was out on a long run or ski. There was something about it that defied my western-world understanding of achievement through focus, hard work and discipline. There’s a paradox in Jim’s story that challenges those notions of the path to success. Jim hadn’t set a Top-10 finish in a world-class event as a goal. Instead, he found himself at the starting line, free of any expectations.
Is the converse true, too? Can the act of striving intensely for a goal sometimes makes its outcome less likely? Was the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland on to something, when he counseled Alice: “Don’t just do something. Stand there”?
It’s not hard to imagine a few elite runners at the finish, just starting to cool down, scratching their heads and wondering, “Who’s this American kid?” Jim might have been wondering the same thing. Our achievements sometimes blindside us and appear only in retrospect.
After the race, Jim summed up his experience. “I felt,” he said, “Like I had been preparing for this race my entire life.”
1. Wenk Stephan 1982 Greifensee Scott 2:45.19,5
2. Minoggio Cristian 1984 I-Cannobio (VB) 2:47.00,0
3. Cox Martin 1969 Anzère ASICS Suisse 2:53.08,2
4. Vaudan Emmanuel 1971 Le Châble BCVS Mount Asics 2:54.01,5
5. Schmid Jonathan 1980 La Chaux-de-Fonds SC la SAGNE 2:57.14,0
6. Toker Jonathan 1975 USA Malibu SaltStick.com 3:05.18,
7. Gansterer Martin 1983 A-Aspang 3:07.23,1
8. Fellay Eric 1972 Liddes 3:11.36,0
9. Maddock Jim 1991 USA-Seattle 3:11.36,1
10. Maino Nicolas 1994 Bussigny-près-Lausanne 3:13.39,1