By Katrin Silva
I enjoy running with music. I don’t do it all the time, and never while racing. But on days when weather conditions keep me off the trails, when I run after a long day at work, when I head out with my muscles tensed into knots and negative thoughts swarming through my head, I clip on my little iPod. On these days, music helps me reach the state of physical exhaustion, mental clarity, and emotional bliss that I crave. Music reminds me of why I run, of why it’s worth the effort. My playlist is eclectic, ranging from the Doors to the Avett Brothers, from Bob Marley to the Mountain Goats. It doesn’t contain much in the way of Country music, but it does contain a bunch of songs by Chris LeDoux.
Most of my trail running, tree hugging, kale-eating, Subaru-driving friends have never heard of him. He was a cowboy. He was also a talented singer-songwriter who lived the life he sang about. He spent many years traveling from rodeo to rodeo, getting on bucking horses, getting bucked off bucking horses, sometimes winning, more often losing. He did win the world championship in bareback bronc riding in the 1976. And he wrote songs about all of it, recorded them on cassette tapes, and sold them of the trunk of his car:
“I’ll gladly take ten seconds in the saddle
For a lifetime of watching from the stands . . . ”
I learned to appreciate Chris LeDoux when I trained Western horses in the 1990s, long before I ran trails, hugged trees, or ate kale. My life back then was a lot like the rodeo circuit, minus some of the dangers of rough stock events: hard work, tired muscles, bruises. A few blue ribbons, a few triumphs, sprinkled in between many disappointments. Too little sleep. Grease-stained paper bags of fast food. Gas station coffee in giant styrofoam cups. Big dreams. Running into the same bunch of people over and over over at different fairgrounds: Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque. Long roads, long hours spent on freeways from Illinois to California, in a crew cab truck with a six-horse trailer in tow. And Chris on the stereo, singing about horses and bulls and gold belt buckles, about his life, which sounded like ours:
“It’s better to ride even if you get thrown
Than to wind up just wishing you had . . . ”
Fast-forward twenty years:
I still love to ride horses, but it’s no longer my job. I have earned a couple of college degrees. I have an indoor job that does not require the application of sunscreen before I start, nor a thorough scrubbing with soap and water immediately after I get home. A job that does not produce weird tan lines. My finger nails are much cleaner. My car no longer smells like a barn. I miss all that, much of the time, but I know that, just like a rodeo cowboy, a horse trainer with a knack for starting colts is lucky to be in one piece after age 35. I quit at 41, which was pushing it. I was ready for a less risky line of work, not to mention shorter hours and weekends off for the first time in my adult life. I did not miss the cold seeping into my bones during long winter days, or the unreliable income. But there are things I did miss. I missed the physical exertion. I missed feeling sore and tired when the sun went down. I missed the feeling of a shower washing off an honest day’s worth of sweat and dirt. And I missed the rhythm of a show season, the happy anticipation of great things, the travel plans, the miles on the road, the faint possibility of winning, even the reality of losing most of the time.
Not long after I quit, I got lucky. I discovered ultra running, the ideal way to satisfy these yearnings. All that spare energy had to go somewhere. I started with a trail marathon, then a 50k. I was hooked. I worked my way up to 50 miles, then 100 miles. I am still hooked.
Many things have changed. I now travel to ultras in my little Honda Civic, which gets forty miles per gallon instead of five. I can discuss religion and politics with most of my ultra friends, without being labeled a communist, or a hippie idealist. My food choices are, for the most part, much healthier than burnt coffee and a bag of Doritos. But I still listen to Chris LeDoux:
“Well its a mighty tough life but I like it alright
You know I wouldn’t have it any other way . . . ”
Chris died in 2005, way too early. His music lives on, though. Sometimes, in the late, dark miles of a 100 mile run, when desert shadows come alive, when the mind plays tricks, I see a cowboy-hatted skeleton riding next to me on a black horse. He tips his hat. I wave. We talk about how short life is, about how beautiful the sunrise will be, about belt buckles we’ve won, or haven’t won but dream about winning someday. And I still think there’s a lot of wisdom in his songs:
“Sit tall in the saddle, Hold your head up high
Keep your eyes fixed where the trail meets the sky
And live like you ain’t afraid to die
And don’t be scared, just enjoy your ride.”
All lyrics by Chris LeDoux:
“Going and Blowing”, from Rodeo and Living Free, 1976
“Ten Seconds in the Saddle” from Western Tunesmith, 1979
“The Ride”, from Horsepower, 2003