Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Lululemon:Elevation - More Than Miles

pic: James Acomb

Elevate [verb el-uh-veyt]
to move or raise to a higher place or position; lift up.
to raise to a higher state, rank, or office; exalt; promote.
to raise the spirits; put in high spirits.

Elevation [noun el-uh-vey-shuh n] 
the height of a place.
the act or result of lifting or raising someone or something.
a place (such as a hill) that is higher than the area around it.

I am not big into making New Year's Resolutions or lists. I feel like you don't need a certain day to instigate a change in your life. If you want a change... you literally can start immediately. But for some strange reason I felt compelled to make a few private goals/resolutions for 2016. My thought was if I made an actual list and remained aware of these goals throughout the year... I would be more likely to follow through and stay true to them. 
  1. Race less and shift my main focus to pure, unscripted adventures and experiences for myself and others 
  2. Become a more authentic version of myself without fear of judgement 
  3. Form deeper and more intimate relationships with my friends and family
  4. Open my heart and mind to create a deeper connection with God and the universe 
  5. Support Kati while she's wrapping up her master's degree and encourage events/activities that SHE wants to do
  6. Practice patience: with people, my dreams and long term goals (ie: moving)

The result? One of the most rewarding and happiest years of my life. 

In July I got a message from Liz of Lululemon asking if I wanted to grab a cup of coffee and chat. I met Liz last year when I filled in for someone at the Lululemon wiffle ball tournament at Avondale Brewery. The event was so much fun. We played wiffle ball, drank colbeer and then had dinner. But for me...the most intriguing part of the whole day was at dinner.  During dinner...we were asked a series of open ended questions that prompted us to really take a step back and self-reflect. We then wrote down specific goals for the upcoming months. I loved this because I felt like I got a little glimpse and insight to the Lululemon culture. It was a business culture and mindset that I had NEVER experienced before within a company. It felt as though Lululemon was looking to transcend from simply selling genuinely trying to better and enrich people's lives. However... since it was a last minute ordeal... I really didn't get a chance to converse with Liz for more than a few minutes. 

So when Liz asked if I wanted to grab a cup of coffee... I jumped at the opportunity. After a few sips of black gold and surface chatter... the conversation went deeper...

"What's your story?"

I’ve actually been asked this question a lot and I've come to find that this is one of the hardest damn questions to answer. Where do you start? What do you share? What do you keep to yourself? Does this person sincerely want to know your story or are they just waiting for you to finish so they can tell you their own story? Liz gave off a sincere vibe so I found it easy to open up to her and be more vulnerable in what I shared instead of merely rattling off from my rehearsed "what's your story?" script. I even told her about a moment where God spoke to me directly...a moment that I have only verbally shared with a handful of individuals. Our conversation concluded with Liz telling me that she will stay in touch about an idea floating around Lululemon that involved trail running. That idea would eventually become Lululemon: Elevation. 

I was stoked when I received an email saying that I had been nominated by the Lululemon store in Birmingham to potential go on a 3 day trail running journey. I immediately filled out the application and hoped for the best. A few weeks passed and I received another emailing confirming that I had been chosen! I was extremely excited but still had to talk with my boss about taking the time off from work since the dates fell in the middle of the week. Trail running adventures, weddings and concerts had already burned almost all of my vacation for the year... but thankfully I have an amazingly supportive boss that recognized this as a great opportunity and allowed me to take off some extra days. 

Things got kicked off with Lululemon: Elevation with a photo shoot on my home trails of Oak Mountain State Park. Morgan and Jessica of Lululemon brought a change of clothes while James Acomb brought his bad ass photography skills. Morgs and Jess's warm smiles and caffeinated happiness paired with James' laid back-easy going style created a hella fun morning! Huge thank you to the girls at Lululemon for the wardrobe and to James for making me look waaaaaaaaaaaaay cooler than I am! 

pic: James Acomb

To keep things interesting and exciting... Kelly, the brain child behind Lululemon: Elevation… kept the details vague and presented the group with the basics. We were going to hop on a bus with people from all over the region and run 3 trails in 3 states in 3 days. Lululemon Ambassador Sonia Steely helped choose the routes and trails we would be running in Alabama and Georgia but since she was not as familiar with local trails in North Carolina...she reached out to me to help plan the last day. I instantly knew which route would be the perfect end to this adventure. 

Day 1: Mount Cheaha | Alabama | Elevation: 2,411 feet 

I had a good feeling this trip was going to be amazing when I arrived at the airport to find Kelly holding a sign with a cat on it. I knew this trip would be phenomenal when I discovered that not just one...but TWO other people on this trip also had 3 legged cats!! 

pic: Alison Hoover

After everyone's flight arrived we were shuttled over to our bus and had lunch as we made our way to our first run destination. Our group contained individuals from all over (Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina) and some who have never truly experienced mountain running. I was really excited for these people to explore the trails and mountains that I consider “home” and to be fully engulfed in nature for a few days. I’m extremely fortunate to live in a place and have a job that allows me to hit a trail every single day of the week if I choose...and more often than not... I get the opportunity to spend multiple days and extended weekends running in the mountains. Every single time I get the opportunity to link multiple days in the mountains... I always walk away with a renewed spirit and a deeper appreciation for the natural environment. Knowing how the mountains personally affect me... it left me more than a little curious to see how a 3 day mountain binge would speak to the others. 

pic: Alison Hoover

Before setting off on our first run of the trip... Sarah gathered us in a circle and went through a short guided meditation focusing on grounding and connecting our mind and body to the earth. I absolutely LOVED this. Some people were a little anxious and thought this was a "race" of sorts...but the guided meditation helped clarify the vision of what this journey was REALLY about.... "to expand and elevate both our physical and mental capabilities."  It was becoming clear to the group that this experience was to be more than miles...

pic: Alison Hoover

Sonia led the group onto the trail and we almost immediately began to climb what we locals have dubbed "Blue Hell." My good friend Hunter Lane was there for the day so we stuck together and ran/hiked up Blue Hell…

pic: Alison Hoover

We even scrambled off trail for a little side quest to catch a view... 

pic: Hunter Lane

After a quick meet up with the group to snap a few pictures at the "Alabama's Highest Point" sign...we set off again for Bald Rock. A few runners took a hard right on the road heading away from Bald Rock and ended up at the park's entrance. I viewed it as a blessing in disguise since it gave us the chance to hop off the road and follow a new-to-even-me rolling single track back to Bald Rock. We eventually winded our way around the mountain to the top and headed along the boardwalk out to the overlook. We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful first day.... 

Since our group didn't get a chance to follow Sonia's planned route down to the shelter to sign the book...we broke away and started down the mountain. Double D (Dwayne) and I bolted out front and made a quick, chatty descent to the shelter. After climbing back up to Bald Rock we reconvened at the bus with the rest of the group for some colbeer and a change of clothes before dinner.

At dinner we received a note from our local store, a snazzy Lululemon: Elevation backpack, and my favorite souvenir of the trip... a leather bound journal... 

Day 2: Springer Mountain | Georgia | Elevation: 3,780ft

We had arrived to our rooms at Serenebe after night fall so we really didn't get a chance to explore the community. After a quick breakfast... We walked around exploring Serenbe for a few minutes before loading the bus to Amicalola State Park.

Pulling into the park brought back a flood of forgotten memories surrounding this area. The last time I was in Amicalola State Park was in 2013 when I slogged across the finish line of my first “real” ultra (Georgia Death Race) with an ex-Army Ranger. We both started feeling rough around mile 40 so we linked up for the last half of the race. Needless to say...the conversations we shared and the stories David told from his experience in the military were AMAZING. I was very thankful I had someone there suffering alongside me through those last 30 miles.  

We unloaded the bus and Becky took us through some pre-run stretches. 

pic: Erin Rydzinski

The plan was to take the Appalachian Approach Trail to Springer Mountain, refuel at the parking lot and retrace our path back to Amicalola for a solid 17ish miles. Since we had such a wide variety of runners within our group... I knew there would be different pace groups but I was still hoping to get a chance to run and connect a little with everyone. A few miles in I found myself alone in Midpack Land… moving too slow and slightly too fast for company. I came across a sign at mile 4.5 indicating the turn off for the Hike Inn. I had always wanted to check out the Hike Inn but had never had the opportunity so I decided to take the 2 mile detour…

I hurried back to the original trail, caught back up to a bigger group and ran/hiked with them all the way to Springer Mountain.

A few days before our own visit to Springer Mountain… Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the entire Appalachian Trail that ended at Springer Mountain. After 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes… Speedgoat finished his journey in the wee morning hours, touched the plaque on the southern terminus of the AT and walked down to his van for a beer. I love that guy.

pic: Red Bull

The NEXT day… someone made a rather outrageous claim… saying that they beat Speedgoat’s record. I won’t go into details of her claim because it’s just annoying and makes my head hurt… but this is her.

pic: a liar 

So of course… being on Springer Mountain a few days after all of this drama… we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to poke a little fun…

I, Zachary Andrews, set a new Appalachian Trail FKT of 22 days, 43 mins and 21 seconds…

Even Jamil said it to be true...

But my new friend Coleen supposedly did it even faster… but her attempt did not count and shall be void because she did not follow the “shirtless” pic rule…

My rumbling tummy let me know that enough tomfoolery had taken place on the summit and I needed to make my way down to the parking lot for lunch. 

pic: Alison Hoover

The sandwich provided was delicious but not appetizing. I was in a good spot nutritionally so I opted for a Clif Bar and an IPA before heading back onto the trail. My goal on the second half was to catch up to Sonia, Jeffers and Big D (Dillon) and spend some time with them. I was 2ish miles behind them so I really needed to push it if I had any chance of catching them. I was settling into a good rhythm heading down into Nimblewill Gap when I snagged a loose rock, twisted my ankle and took a tumbled down the trail. As I stood up I noticed a backpacker staring at me. This old timer had just witnessed me toppling down the side of a freakin mountain and all he has to say is…

“You’re in 9th place.”

Instead of trying to explain what we were all out here doing… I steered the conversation towards  the details of his hike so he could lead the conversation while I worked through some rehab for my ankle. After a few minutes of small talk and rehab… I felt my ankle settle back into place and I parted ways the backpacker. A huge thank you goes out to Dr Beard of the FARM. His rehab techniques have saved me a few times now from on trail mishaps!

I started the climb out of Nimblewill Gap when I bumped into Big D and plopped down on a rock beside him…

Big D was feeling crampy and didn’t have an appetite but seemed to be settling into his temporary residence in Bonk City quite nicely and with a positive attitude. He insisted that I carry on and enjoy my run… but the words didn’t match the look in his eyes.

Being vulnerable is one of the hardest parts about being a man. We live in a world that is absolutely terrified of being vulnerable. Our society has created this fallacious notion where if an individual shows emotion, asks for help or expresses themselves in a way that's not "normal" or "manly"... they are “weak” and are to be scrutinized and banished to the 6th Circle of Hell for heresy. People get so wrapped up in judging others and trying to prove each other wrong that they miss out on connecting with unique individuals. People judge. That's how it is and how it’s always been. And if you are one of these people that say "I don't judge people"... I will be the first person to call you a liar. Judging someone doesn't make you a bad person. Judging someone and then proceeding to tell them why they are wrong or why they should change... instead of being open and accepting... makes you a bad person... and more importantly… an asshole. Just because YOU think or believe something... doesn't necessarily make it right or truth for everyone else. The beautiful thing about life is that every individual gets a chance to express and interpret existence in their own little way. I’ve come to find that life and the connections you make with people become increasing more genuine and pure the more vulnerable and authentic you become.  

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable."
 - Madeleine L' Engle (author of A Wrinkle in Time)

Any time I go out on the trail in a group setting like this… I tend to over pack my vest just in case someone needs extra food/water/etc. This was Big D’s longest trail run to date so he wasn’t quite sure what he would/wouldn’t need to get him though. He hadn’t eaten much but didn’t think he could stomach any gels… luckily I had packed 2 packs GU chews that he could scarf down.  After a steady supply of electrolyte tablets and handing over 2 of my soft flasks full of water… he started feeling a little better. We briefly caught up to Wilfred who shared his bag of happiness with us (AKA: SOUR PATCH KIDS!!!). Wilfred pulled ahead and it was back to just me, Dillon and the quiet forest… but we knew we were getting close once we started crossing wooden bridges…

We heard a gleeful shout from Ali (our lovely photographer for the trip) as we popped out onto the service road for the final climb to the parking lot…

pic: Alison Hoover

This is what this trip was all about. Being authentic. Being vulnerable. Not holding back.

Elevating each other to become better versions of ourselves. 

pic: Alison Hoover

I’m extremely grateful for the time I got to spend with Dillon on the trail... but even more grateful for the conversation we had later that night. Nothing but respect for that man. 

pic: Mandy Oakes

We spent the rest of the evening at the Laughing Bear Lodge eating…

pic: Steve Kellett


pic: Steve Kellett

Lounging around this rad place…

And enjoying the cooler temperatures around the fire…

pic: Steve Kellett

Day 3: Mount Mitchell | North Carolina | Elevation: 6,684ft

Like I said earlier… when Sonia asked me for route options around Mount Mitchell for the final day… I INSTANTLY knew which route would be the perfect end to this adventure. We were to start at the Black Mountain Campground and follow the 5.6 mile Mount Mitchell Trail climbing 3,600ft to the summit the highest peak east of the Mississippi. Being one of the hardest continuous climbs in the region… this route is known to be a “rite of passage” and I felt it fit in perfectly with the theme and motives that encompassed this trip. Though day 3 would be the hardest route of the trip… it definitely would not be the toughest. I partly chose this route because it would force everyone to move at a slower pace. These enchanting mountains hold a certain mystic, ancient beauty that I have yet to find anywhere else and I wanted everyone to truly observe and be fully engulfed in its majesty. Mount Mitchell has personally helped shape and purify my trail running/adventure mindset and my hope and prayer behind choosing this route was that each individual would walk away with an experience that moved and excited their soul.

There is something ridiculously satisfying about starting at the bottom of a mountain and climbing to the top. You could feel the excitement as we unloaded the bus and started getting ready…

pic: Dillon Jones

After a quick stretch session we headed upwards…

The day was shaping up to be my favorite type of running day: misty and gloomy. There really is no better way to experience Mount Mitchell than under these conditions. It’s truly magical. Unlike the previous days… I WANTED to be alone for the ascent to this summit. I wanted my breathing, footsteps and the forest to be the only sounds I heard….

I got my wish and disappeared into a peaceful state of euphoria…

As I neared the top… the voices of fellow wanderers snapped me out of my trance…

pic: Alison Hoover

My mind was flooded with wonderful memories when my feet hit the pavement for the last push to the summit. And like the Pitchell adventure… I received the same, grey, cloud covered view… but it couldn’t have been a more perfect view.

Instead of heading back down to the bus… I made my way back down the trail. I was hoping to capture a few pictures of other runners making their way up the mountain. Everyone single person I passed was enjoying themselves…

But Becky and Coleen stole my heart. The excitement and wonder on both of their faces radiated joy, peace and pure happiness.

“I did not quite know what magic felt like until I traveled through the sounds, smells and sensations of Mountain Mitchell State Park… a place where you can deeply connect to yourself and everything around you. A place where answering emails, returning phone calls, impressing your neighbor and the fa├žade of who you are disappears into the fog and mist. A place where “experience” has meaning and life is revitalized by the vibrant wonders of the forest. I left a piece of my heart there and filled the voids with aw and wonder.”  - Becky

I fell in line after the last group passed and tailed them to the summit…

Perhaps I was an Australian Shepard in a past life?

The summit was the site of a well-deserved celebration and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting back and observing everyone’s happiness…

pic: Alison Hoover

Even the heavens opened up and provided the first view I have EVER had on Mount Mitchell…

pic: Megan Conner

Once we loaded the bus and started heading back down to a lower elevation… we really got some spectacular views!!

Dinner that night was really special. We each had the opportunity to stand up and share a little about our experience or a moment from the trip…

 pic: Steven Kellett

It was really moving to see how every single person was impacted by this trip in one way or another…

pic: Steven Kellett

Day 4: Asheville NC to Birmingham AL | Elevation: 36,000ft

We left out of Albert’s Lodge early Friday morning and stopped in Burnsville for breakfast.

pic: Aaron Hewitt

Coffee in hand… Sonia and I set out to explore the quaint little mountain town while we waited for our food…

Maybe the caffeine had me excited…

pic: Sonia Steely
Or maybe it was the fact that I was stupid excited about our next destination… my favorite city on Earth…

pic: Julio Lajara (aka: Best Roomie Eva)

We had a few hours to kill in the city before we needed to make our way over to the airport. We all ventured off our separate ways to explore.

I’m not sure why… but this eclectic city holds my heart. It’s so vibrant and full of life. It feels like home.

My main goal in Asheville was to find a rock shop. My wife loves rocks and the last time we were in the city we stumbled upon a cute little rock shop tucked away on a side street. Though I couldn’t recall the name of the rock shop we visited years ago… Becky and Coleen accompanied me to a new rock shop called Enter the Earth where we each sifted through hundreds of beautiful rocks. After researching and speaking with the assistant in the shop I settled on 2 rocks for Kati…

  • Blue Lace Agate - “said to assist in communication, self-expression and helps bring calmness and confidence” – I felt it was fitting since Kati is becoming more authentic and true to herself daily. She also just started a new vlog!

  • Celestite – “said to have gentle, soothing and uplifting energies” – I was sold on this rock immediately. The Celestite rock’s description and color matched Kati’s eyes perfectly. Her eyes were one of the first things I fell in love with and they have always been soothing and uplifting when I’ve been down and out.

I also purchased a rock for myself: 

  •  Polychrome Jasper – “said to be a stone of tranquility, balance and strength. It is said to provide stamina and determination, grounding, support and nurturing qualities. It can connect a person to ancient earth memories.”

When we left the shop I parted ways with Becky and Coleen. They went vegan and I went Wicked Weed.

pic: Aaron Hewitt
We all congregated for the last time and toasted to one amazing trip before heading to the airport.

I can’t express how appreciative and thankful I am for the opportunity to have been a part of Lululemon: Elevation. It’s so refreshing to see a company with such a progressive mindset that is genuinely interested in enhancing people’s lives and impacting the community in a positive light. A special bond was formed with the people on this trip and I look forward to continuing those relationships. Life doesn’t always provide the means for one to completely break away… but this trip blessed me with a chance to do just that. To break away from my normal routine and really step back and evaluate what’s truly important in my life. I am walking away from this trip with more than just good memories… I’m walking away with an elevated life.

“One’s mind… once stretched by a new idea… never regains its original dimension.”

pic: Alison Hoover

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