So far, I’ve divulged my purpose in creating this site, and given you a glimpse into my latest endurance project. I even have an “About” Page. But you still really don’t know that much about me, do you? I’m still nothing more than a sparsely outfitted blog page of a young kid with pipe dreams to you. I’d like to fix that, if you have a moment to spare.
(Atop Lembert Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite CA. Cathedral Peak in the background)
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
My name is Charles Klinger, I’m a 22 year old, currently enlisted in the United States Air Force as an Air Traffic Controller, stationed at Travis AFB, CA.
I’m originally from the East Coast. I spent the vast majority of my childhood in a backwoods neighborhood in the small (albeit quickly expanding, now) town of Stafford, Virginia. It is here that my passion for movement and outdoor exploits was born, developed, and primed my body, mind, & soul for the lifestyle I lead today. Here’s how things unfolded for me:
It all started with soup (I think it was Potato)
It started well before the soup, but the soup was kind of the tipping point.
(Spoiler Alert: if you are intolerant to “heavy” reading, please skip to the next section, it brightens dramatically there).
To skip straight to the point, my childhood was, for lack of a better term, rough. I grew up feeling abandoned by my biological father, abused by my stepfather, and neglected by my mother.
To avoid some of the messier details, I will summarize here: My mother and biological father had, for reasons of their own, separated when I was very young. A few years later, my mother met my to-be stepfather. Miscommunications, unrealistic expectations, and combative, conflicting personalities soon got the better of my father, and he was absent for 8 years of my life (we are now happily re-united, and while I’m not sure that I’ll ever be completely healed from it, I at least understand the struggle he went through). All the while, unbeknownst to anyone outside of the immediate family (to include Maternal Grandparents) unapologetic, unremorseful, and unabashed abuse was ever present. Fierce attacks against one’s person (physically, mentally, and emotionally) were dismissed as “discipline”, but left me – along with what would eventually become six other siblings – in a very dark place.
Our life was never glamorous, we had little money, and what money we had was often spent on trivialities over daily essentials. I wore shoes too small for my feet more often than I care to remember. We had spent nearly a full year moving from hotel to town home to hotel after our house caught fire for the third time. I was attacked by a neighboring dog. There are really so many tangent stories I could embark on here, but basically, like I said, it was…rough.
I completely immersed myself in everything I did. If I could find a way to transport my mind somewhere, anywhere, outside of this place, I took it. I read every book I could rent from the school library. I painted. I acted. I took solace (though I never told him or anyone else) in my friend’s basement. I didn’t even mind the hour and a half bus ride that was my daily commute to school everyday. I enrolled in every demanding educational program I could, eventually immersing myself in the International Baccalaureate Program of my High School. Athletics were another avenue. Music another – loud music. Anything.
Now, for the soup. Over an argument regarding the vulnerabilities of young children and their safety near the dangers of boiling hot soup, I became cornered in a dark kitchen, my stepfather seemed colossal to the eyes of my scrawny mid-teen mind. His fist struck, a crack sounded from my sternum, my hands grasped at his throat, and I was to the floor within seconds – broken, crying, and defeated.
After a time, I composed myself and dialed for the police. I couldn’t endure another explosive and potentially harmful incident (they were getting more violent and brazen with each day), and I entirely refused to let the others.
Sirens, court cases, and several months later, my stepfather was incarcerated (under several charges other than assault, some involving establishments as far reaching as the Federal United States Government) and would stay that way for several years.
This left our already poor faring family with nothing. Despite the atrocity that was the human being who was now behind bars, bills were under his name. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit, and as such, income trickled from a small rivulet to the salt flats of Bonneville faster than you can order a drink at Starbucks, which lead to blame (both self induced, as well as from outside sources) landing on my shoulders.
We eventually went belly up, no more than the lint in our pockets to call our own, and were soon relocated to Florida, where my mother’s parents provided some level of stability for the family.
The situation didn’t resolve, however. For my mother as well as her parents, the white picket fence life they had envisioned and dreamed of was completely shattered, without hope for revitalization. Knowingly or not, this trauma and devastation was then dished out and enacted upon the children. Screaming matches, threats, and punishments unbecoming of alleged and often false accusations were common.
I wasn’t allowed sports, I was kept apart from my girlfriend (now wife) whom I loved dearly, I was even barred from applying for scholarships for college. I was a prisoner.
In the same timespan, secrets long buried were unearthed in regards to the long history behind previously attempted divorces: the maternal grandparents had previously bought us homes in Florida (twice), large sums of money was given to relieve debt, and in the end relationships were destroyed. My mother, grandfather, and grandmother, were all aware of what was happening, and yet had chosen to do nothing more than either throw money at it or pretend it wasn’t. They had failed to protect their kin – the direct inverse function of the family unit.
The summary of this quite bleak and dreary prelude is that depression and addiction started early in my life. By the time I was 16, I had run away from home upwards of five times, been arrested, and had already begun drinking far more alcohol than is advisable for anyone, of any age. On several occasions, I had mixed large quantities of alcohol with prescription medications in an effort not to wake up the next morning. I was lost, terrified, and in a darker place than I have ever been, or ever care to be in again.
I tried to go through it, real quiet. The less people knew, the better. I mean, really what could they do anyway, right? Even my best friend Shawn (who, let it be said, was a purveyor of the finest acorn teas, barista extraordinaire, drummer for End State/ Maybe Aviator, and collaborator in Shawnvoncharleson) didn’t know what was going on, and we played in a basement band together… I slept on his couch most nights.
I had become an expert at hiding; burying everything as deep as I could – locking it away in the confines of my mind. Suffering was nothing more than routine, and pain was ordinary. Defying my reason and rationality, feigning happiness, and enduring.
Scott Jurek, in his autobiography “Eat and Run”, summarized this phenomena quite succinctly, saying “I don’t think they knew it at the time – I certainly didn’t – but…they were training me to be an endurance athlete. By the time I started running, I knew how to suffer” (p.15).
The Activity Bus, & Other Adventures
I have always loved running, really, and as far back as elementary school, I’ve been doing it.
There was a movement initiative at our school (that I can’t remember the name of) whereby, for every mile you ran, you earned a little plastic foot that fit gaudily on your shoelace. I collected a whole Ziploc bag full, and I kept getting more. One year, probably 3rd or 4th grade, I remember forfeiting my entire recess – everyday – to run laps on the dirt trail that circumnavigated the school playground. While most kids were picking their nose, running away from the opposite sex, and scraping their knees from falling off of swings, I was running. I don’t know why, but it was what I needed to do.
I was always in a sport; soccer from the time I could kick a ball, and starting in 6th grade I joined the track team. I was atrocious. I was tall – the coach thought hurdles, but I was clumsy. I was lean – the coach thought sprints, but I lagged far behind anyone who had played a season of organized football (I had always played soccer, but I was the goaltender, not the goal scorer). I wasn’t bulky or powerful enough to throw shot put, and I couldn’t jump over a hurdle, how was I going to get the form for discus down, or clear the high jump? So I settled into my place with all the other kids without wheels: I ran the mile. I wasn’t very good, and I sort of started on a plateau of slow, never really getting any better, but hey, I was 11 – at least I was moving.
(Tri-school XC Meet at Willowmere Park)
I meandered through middle school and into high school, which is around the same time all of the aforementioned incidents came to a crux. I tried out for and made the school’s soccer team, as a goalkeeper. I played hard, everyday. I was passionate. I loved the game, was totally immersed and absorbed by it… so much so that, in an effort to preemptively train for the next season, I signed up for winter track. I was still slow, still working hard to break the 6’00/mile mark. I went every day, hitched rides to practice on the weekend, even rode my beat to hell, single speed Huffy the 4 miles to the county park where we practiced, or the 12 miles to the school track to get in a few steps on the big, soft oval. I didn’t compete that season, reserved myself to the group of people who were just there to stay in shape (we were all extremely overshadowed by the high school phenom; Thomas Porter – I felt like a tortoise running alongside him). The coach knew this. He was okay with it, but still asked me to come back at the end of the season, just to see what I could do, for spring track. I agreed.
(I still play soccer, I was even invited to play for the Travis AFB Soccer team, but after a traumatic Zygomaticomaxillary Fracture [5 titanium plates in my left cheekbone, pictured here], I have resigned to the intramural season)
I was wholeheartedly in love. I did anything and everything I could to get to practice. I even made the old woman who drove the after school activity bus drive the ENTIRE bus route to drop me off at the edge of my neighborhood, which still left another mile and a half with all of my IB course books and track gear to cover, and all of the day’s homework left to do once I got home, and all after whatever workout I had just done. I had no spare time, but that was kind of the point.
I would try out again for the soccer team. I hadn’t played in the entire nine months between this season and last season, I was rusty, and some of the local superstar players took my spot. I was ok with that, because I knew what I wanted to do. Run.
I ran cross-country, indoor, and outdoor track both sophomore and junior year. I loved the season, the atmosphere, the competition, the weather of Virginia in early fall, the crunch of my Nike Vomero 5’s as they pounded out mile after mile on 4 wheeler tracks in the woods that surrounded the lake, the feeling of my Reebok XC spikes in fresh mud at Regionals, the smell of vinyl bus seats and diesel fuel at a brisk 3 A.M., tent cities, and Friday pasta dinners. It was my calling. I had found it.
I lowered my 5k time from 22’00”+ to an 18’00”, I ran a 12’00” 3200, and I had blown away my previous goal of a 6’00 1600 by running a PR of 5’05”. I was getting faster, I was getting happier. I was running.
I moved to Florida and left my high school in the spring of my junior year. I was devastated. Everything I had, the only scraps of happiness I had managed to piece together were crushed, crumpled, burned to ash, and buried. I was moving to Florida; my school didn’t recognize my IB program (which meant no credit for all the work I had done to that point), I was forced to take remedial reading to ensure that I met the state standard (a 12th grade class full of students who still weren’t proficient in the English Language), and the highest elevation in driving distance was 62’ above sea level. I lived for the hills – XC had instilled a spirit of adventure, and a love for wilderness, and an addiction to movement that I couldn’t even begin to explain, and it was all taken away – snap – just like that.
I gave up. On just about everything. My previously untarnished GPA plummeted. I drank more than I care to admit. I spent a night in a juvenile detention facility. I spent many more nights… well, anywhere that wasn’t my house.
I stopped running.
I just stopped.
I graduated. I even got some college credit for AP classes. I’m not entirely sure how, but I didn’t ask questions. I turned 18, and I left. I had been noiselessly reaching out to my biological father – I didn’t know what else to do.
My father was heartbroken, and yet entirely elated that I had gotten back in contact. He knew that I had suffered (though not the details), and was forlorn over his absence. He has since been supportive, and we have developed a strong relationship that continues to grow.
I lived with my dad for a year. I spent a lot of time recuperating from my past. I was not much more than an angry, simmering stew of hatred and bile for the better part of that year. I had developed into an introvert, constantly in a stupor, and violently angry at the impartiality of the chaos that is life.
I did, however, start to run again. When I wasn’t working overtime to pay for trips to see Natasha in Florida, I rode my bike nearly every day, over a mountainous 15 mile stretch to the local college gym, completed a strength training circuit, swam (as best I could), then biked another 5 miles to the trailead, where I would easily spend 2 hours running. I ran on the Maryland and Virginia sections of the Appalachian Trail, across historic battlefields, or in the regional parks around the house.
I had found my love again, unstructured and formless though it may have been. I didn’t race, I didn’t compete, I just ran. I ran away from everything that ate me up inside. I ran toward a new life – one that I would begin to forge out of nothing more than flesh, bone, and my own iron will.
Please, Raise Your Right Hand and Repeat After Me
I enlisted in the USAF after about 6 months with my dad. I worked really hard (originally) to pass the P.A.S.T Test – the special operations initial physical fitness test – but swam like a rock. Still, I tried, failed, tried again, failed, tried again, failed.
I was set to try again when a contract came down the line. I could leave in 2 weeks, but I wouldn’t get the Pararescueman slot I had hoped for. I wanted to move on. I wanted to do more than flip burgers, toss fries, and operate a cash drawer.
I raised my right arm and signed on the dotted line.
Basic Military Training was 8 weeks of annoying. Not to say it wasn’t hard, but after week 2, I started to notice patterns in the behavior of the Military Training Instructors (MTI’s) and figured out that their threats were (mostly) idle, and their bereavements were nothing more than just crude jokes at the expense of us (the military trainees). It wasn’t the first time I had dealt with this kind of behavior, so I simply settled into routine and pushed through it. I did what I could to make life easy. I devised an ingenious method of rolling shirts which outshone even the instructors, bided my time, scarfed down as much food as I could each day, mastered the art of Guideon (a glorified flag bearer), and studied the required course material.
(BMT Graduation Day)
Before I knew it, I was on a Southwest fight from San Antonio, Texas to Keesler AFB, Mississippi. I would be here for 6 months learning (and subsequently un-learning) the basics of Air Traffic Control. I spent these six months following basically the same routine and habits as I did during BMT. On the weekends, I drove to Pensacola where Natasha was attending University. I kept my head down, stayed out of sight, studied hard, ran enough to stay active, and only raced one time – the Pensacola Double Bridge 15k – and was on my way to the West Coast before I realized what was happening.
Go West, Young Man!
It was late March of 2011, the roads were wide, the countryside open, and I had a month. I was making a trip west from Keesler AFB to Travis AFB. I only took fourteen days, but I spent 10 of them driving the iconic Route 66. I was on a journey to the farthest reaches of the contiguous US – practically as far away from the place I called home as I could manage without getting my feet wet – and I savored every moment of it. I was bound for the West Coast. The thought was unimaginable for someone like me. The call of the West was all but legendary to explorers and adventurers, and I was to answer it.
Before I left for BMT, I had asked Natasha to spend the rest of her life with me – we were engaged. I would have preferred something a little more grandiose (for her, and memory’s sake) but we were wed in the courthouse in Pensacola, Florida before I left for the west. I would move out on my own, she would finish up her semester at school and meet me in the summer. We were happy. We were free. Now, I’m lucky enough to get to share my life with the exquisite Natasha Frye. We met in high school, and have been making a beautiful, adventure filled life ever since. She makes me happy, and supports my most outrageous and intolerable eccentricities. Our two dogs, Bryn (Belgian Shepherd) and Echo (Lab/Border Collie Mix) keep us company here at home and on many of our expeditions.
I had stopped running again, although this time not for lack of motivation or melancholy, but rather in an attempt to wholeheartedly sort out my new life. I was entirely free from everything that had once scarred me. Natasha and I bought furniture, we adopted pets, I learned my profession, and we settled into routine. I wasn’t racing. I hadn’t since Pensacola, so I was in no rush to get back to an every day running program. Until I was.
The Birth of a Dirtbag
It wasn’t an “all of a sudden” experience. It was a culmination of little things that finally led to that “aha!” moment. A run here, a hike there, but no real plan or development. Honestly, I can’t even remember why I decided to run the Travis AFB Half Marathon – all I really remember is being signed up. It was 2012, I had been in California for over a year, and I had been exploring some of the local trails – sometimes running, but usually just for short hikes with the dogs.
I toed the line at 7:50 A.M., entirely accepting that I would probably be utterly crushed by the competition. I mean, some of these people looked like legitimate athletes – long, lean muscled, racing flats, singlets – they were prepared. I wore my cross country uniform split shorts, and a cotton t-shirt (it didn’t stay on very long). But, I toed the line anyway.
Before the gun even went off, I had found my groove. I was out the gate and cruising along at 3rd place. My legs were light, nimble, and fast. I flew around the airfield, absolutely devastating my initial insecurities. I stayed in 3rd most of the way around the course, battling briefly with a tall young athlete around mile 4. I was leading the group behind me by half a minute or so – 1st and 2nd were within sight, but strategically, there was nowhere to push in front without a strong fight. We were only to the turn around, and I wasn’t prepared for that kind of effort. I did reel them in, though, and stayed within close proximity to the two ahead of me for a while – they seemed at ease, running solid (though not without effort).
We rounded the opposite side of the flight line and were immediately met with a strong gust of wind. Even on your best race day the 45 knot winds would humble you. I slowed to a 7’25”/mile and reserved myself for the finish. I let the competition trail off ahead of me, keeping them in sight.
There was no fight, though, and there was no struggle at the end. I had given up my spot in the lead pack, and they had left me behind. My 7’25” held strong, but they were stronger. I kicked as hard as I could as I approached what I knew would be the last half-mile, but it still wasn’t enough. 1st place had come across the line a solid 37 seconds in front of my 1:20:13, second place only a few seconds after that (I went on to take 2nd place overall the next year).
(Travis AFB Half Marathon, 2013)
Regardless of the results, though, I had raced with almost no training, pushed hard, and even suffered a little towards the end – leaving me wanting more. I wanted to race hard, suffer, and win.
I ran every day that I could, driving to the local trailhead anywhere from before my evening shift, after my morning shift, or even in the middle of the night. I created a training plan that resembled my cross-country schedule (looking back now, it was poorly devised, and I had almost no goal orientation – I could have been far more successful just having signed up for a race). I spent most of my paycheck on new shoes and gear for the run. I took road trips on my weekends just to explore a new trail, frequenting, as often as I could, the Yosemite region of the Sierra Nevada. I talked about running, thought about running, dreamed about running. I ran trails, I ran on the road, I ran anywhere. I would fidget through work, unfocused, distracted, and anxious to get out of my uniform and into my 5” shorts and slip on my running shoes. Running was my addiction. Running was my vice. Running was my happiness. Running was my home.
The Sierra Nevada Project (JMT)
I recently posted a trip report from the John Muir Trail. I will post a more detailed explanation of my inspiration and passion for the trail in the future, but I’ll outline the progression and basics here.
Late in 2011, I learned of a trail that traversed the Sierra Nevada of California. It was 212 miles long, and was considered by most to be some of the most stunning and impressive landscapes in the country. I became instantaneously enamored by the thought of a retreat to the lonesome wilderness landscapes of the west.
I planned a section hike with Natasha and two of our friends from my work. We would take 10 days in August of 2012 to hike the trail from Yosemite Valley to Red’s Meadow Resort near Mammoth Mountain. We planned, worked out logistics, mapped our route, bought gear, organized, re-organized, and kept one another motivated for six months. In August, we left for the trip. We hiked slowly, we took rest days, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
I wasn’t satisfied. Not that the trip wasn’t enjoyable, just that I wanted more. I wanted to do the whole trail, and I wanted to do it fast. I began planning my next move on the trail, and I hadn’t even left.
I planned for a full year this time. I knew the logistics and red tape that surrounded everything, so my planning focused on pace, training, and gear. I re-evaluated everything, bought a new pack, and even analyzed my diet for proper trail nutrition. I was going back. I would do the full trail in two weeks.
The 2013 trip went well, overall. Natasha and I invited three friends from work, and we departed Yosemite Valley on August 2nd. Throughout the trip, the mountain defeated several people, including Natasha. I finished the trail, though, and stood atop Mt. Whitney (the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States) 14 days after I started. The trip was a success.
And yet, I still remained less than satiated.
During our trip, on our third day of hiking (as we made our way up the first mountain pass [Donahue] of the trip) we passed two men in highlighter green “The North Face” shirts. They carried nothing more than a race vest and a few water bottles and moved deftly over the trail. You could tell they were bushed. You could see it in the way their faces stared blankly at you – even through their sunglasses. As the day passed, I recollected who these men were. We had just seen Mike Wolfe and Hal Koerner, two hardened and grizzled ultramarathoners; members of The North Face team. They went on to set the supported Fastest Known Time along the JMT (3 days, 12 hours, 41 minutes from Whitney Portal; 3 days, 9 hours, 5 minutes from Mt. Whitney summit). These men had just set my sights a LOT higher.
(Atop Mt Whitney. Left to Right – Mitch, Me, John, Cameron, Molly)
I was often alone and ahead of the group, which gave me a lot of time to start planning. I reflected on my gear, my pace, my abilities, my discomfort, and my determination as we hiked. I was, again, planning my next attack before my initial siege was even over.
By the time I got home, I was sure. I wanted to attempt the JMT as fast as I could, with the FKT as my far and away goal.
I began training. I ran hard, but was still slow. I reached out for sponsorships, support, and assistance in every way I could. (A huge thank you to VESPA, Pocketfuel Naturals, and Treeline Outdoors).
I ran my first ultra-distance in a 12 hour relay race to raise money for and support the Travis AFB Fisher House (it was supposed to be a relay team of 6-12, running in turns for 12 hours; I ran by myself. We raised over $14k). I registered for my first official ultramarathon, the American River 50, and though it didn’t go as hoped, (basically, just poor hydration/electrolyte planning and balancing) I was still confident in my abilities.
(Travis AFB Fisher House Viking challenge)
(American River 50 Mile Endurance Run)
Then, in July of 2014, we were off again. Natasha and I were tackling the trail alone this year. But, as they say, the best schemed plans of mice and men…
(You can read about the attempt here).
I was crushed before I even really started. I learned a lot, and I’m moving on.
Every good race has a kick. A strong finish. A fight to the tape, leaving everything on the course. Here’s mine:
Running has saved my life, countless times. I had a tumultuous childhood, a strenuous and testing adolescence, and an abrupt transition into adulthood. Without running as a way of life, I would undoubtedly be in a dark and terrifying place. Without it, I wouldn’t be who I am at a very basic and primitive level.
Whether I knew it or not, I’ve been running for my whole life – physically and metaphorically. Running is my existential path, the course being the ultimate endurance race: life. I know it’s overused as a motivational phrase, but I don’t live to run, but rather, I run to live. Whether it’s a 5k, a 50 miler, or a 5 mile training run, it’s the only place I can truly understand. The only place I truly belong. Movement is my life. I find solace in solitude, comfort in the wilderness, and joy in the pain and darkness that endurance running provides. Some call that masochism, but to me it’s just normal.
(Fresh Powder covers Yosemite; Overlooking Half Dome from Glacier Point)
I know this post has been long. It’s probably a little bit scattered and disorganized – maybe even hard to follow. This story is one that very few know, and I’ve put a lot of myself into these words. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read it.
Cheers, and Happy Trails.