On December 21st I had the honor of sharing the cold and wind swept summit of Mt. Whitney in the southern Sierras with high school senior Adam Peterman. Grinning into the sun I snapped photos of the cross country runner I have coached for four years as he raised both arms in triumph while trying not to let his skinny frame be knocked over by the 50 MPH gusts we had battled all morning. Adam had just realized one of the biggest goals he had set for himself in his 17 years on this earth and I had front row seats to witness his achievement.
It was 12:15 PM and only 31 hrs prior we had set out on road bikes from Badwater, Death Valley 155 Miles away with the ambition of standing on this rocky perch. This moment was the apex of months of planning, preparation and hard work for Adam’s high school senior project: To go from the lowest point in the contiguous United States to the highest under his own power while raising money for Outdoor Nation, a nonprofit dedicated to getting youth outdoors.
Only a couple of months ago Adam asked me after practice one day to be his mentor for his senior project, an assignment which all Hellgate High seniors must complete. After getting to know Adam over the last four years I was well aware of his drive and ambition to do extraordinary things. He is an incredible athlete, and at one point in the XC season was ranked 5th in the country while maintaining his honor roll status. I knew he would bring this dedication to whatever project we chose, and it came as no surprise to me that he responded with a wide eyed smile when I asked him what he thought of Death Valley to Mt. Whitney.
Shortly thereafter Adam decided that he wanted to raise money for Outdoor Nation. It is not lost on him that he lives within a five-minute bike ride of a wilderness area with a dozen trailheads a stones throw from his home in Missoula, MT. Adam has taken full advantage of these open spaces for years and knows how fortunate he is to have these resources at his fingertips, and therefore wants other youth to have the opportunities he has grown up with.
With the goal of raising $5,000 we worked towards promoting our trip as well as we could. We drafted press releases and developed social media pages, blogs and websites. Adam did local TV interviews before school and wrote articles for online media all over the country. Book ended by tight schedules and 17 hrs. of driving there and back we had literally a two day window to make this trip work. With all the prep and planning we had done, we were left with only the hope that the weather would hold for us. We checked the forecast obsessively and crossed our fingers as the dates approached. And on a cold and cloudy mid-December afternoon, we drove away from Missoula in a packed Subaru with the compass pointing south.
As they say, the rest is history. The weather held and we set off from Badwater, Death Valley under a blue-black starry sky. We biked all day long. Adam bonked early on the first climb, then recovered, then bonked again. We pushed our bikes in the dark the last two miles up the icy switchbacks of the road to the Mt. Whitney Trailhead. Adam crumpled into his sleeping bag without an appetite and questioned his ability to push to the summit the following morning. Accompanied with a little tough love, I focused on getting calories in him and let him go to sleep with the plan that we would just wake up and see how he felt after he got a little rest.
The following morning I handed Adam a bowl of steaming oatmeal around 3 AM. He had his appetite back and I could see a fresh flicker of resolve in his eyes as he wriggled out of his sleeping bag. We passed two groups along our route to the summit who stated quite matter of factly that no one would be able to reach the top on that day, citing strong winds. Yes the winds were strong, but the skies were clear and we were buoyed by confidence with each foot gained in elevation and the subsequent and rewarding views of the stunning Sierras. With the mantra, “everything came together, so that everything could come together” we came closer and closer to our objective until we were standing right on it.
Crouching on top of Whitney trying to catch my breath in the thin air through a tired smile and watching Adam do the same I couldn’t help but think of the day we met four years ago my rookie season of coaching. Adam was a short and scrawny incoming freshman who showed promise, but lacked confidence in himself at times. I’ve seen Adam progress and grow since that day so much, but nothing was as stark as our brief time together on the highest point in the lower 48. Watching Adams grit and determination while fighting altitude, fatigue and wind that day I saw not a scrawny kid, but a well poised young man with the world at his fingertips. And I couldn’t have been more proud to be a part of his moment.
As a competitive ultrarunner, I have had the fortune of standing on the podium of some of the biggest Mountain Races in the world. Pushing my body to its limits in the mountains is what I live for. But my trip with Adam two weeks ago reminded me that my life as an athlete is not what defines me. It turns out that being a supporting actor in the journey of a good kid and helping him realize the things that he is capable of feels just as good as any finish line I have ever crossed.
Help us reach our goal of $5,000 dollars for Outdoor Nation. We are Halfway there!