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Zen, Ultra-running and the Art of Suffering

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Keihland Haft and Sammy Collins. If you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Avery Collins was two hours into a 100-mile race in the steamy Hawaiian jungle when he heard about the missiles. As he pulled into an aid station, a man with a thick Russian accent started yelling at him in an excited voice that Collins couldn’t understand. Looking for an explanation, Collins turned to his crew, who told him plainly, “He’s saying there’s a missile threat.”

A what now?

On the morning of Jan. 13, 2018, a text went out over the Emergency Alert System: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

An ultramarathon is as much mental as it is physical. Sure, runners need to be fit to handle extreme mileage, but maintaining a positive attitude while staying on top of hydration, nutrition and pacing is just as important. Runners also need to prepare for blisters, chafing, stomach issues, sleep deprivation, rolled ankles and dozens of other unexpected developments that can derail your race if you let them.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles, however, tend to not make the pre-race checklist.

Throw in the unforgiving conditions of the appropriately-named HURT 100 course — 24,500 feet of climbing spread out over 100 miles in a semi-tropical rainforest — and the threat of imminent annihilation was a little too much for many to take. Some took shelter under a nearby bridge until the threat had passed. Collins continued to run.

“I had one of the clearest minds you could possibly have,” Collins says. “I was looking at it from an extremely rational approach. It’s not like I was going to be able to hop on a plane or a boat. We’re running up and down one of the highest places on the island so we’re already in one of the safest places. It was out of my control. So, I’m just going to keep running.”

The race went on, the world failed to end and Collins ran. He ran through heat and humidity, over 20 stream crossings and a maze of twisted roots with malevolent intention. He ran through an aid station at Mile 60, where, after wolfing down some miso soup, he proceeded to vomit everywhere. A horrified aid station worker asked if he was alright. Collins smiled, wiped the snot off his face, and told her, “Oh yeah, I’m doing great!”

“It wasn’t to be cool,” he says. “I was dead serious. That’s the shit I love. That’s the good stuff, man! That’s the stuff I want to fight.”

Collins really talks like this, dispensing his hardcore running philosophy with an enthusiasm that strikes some as cocky, even arrogant. It’s not bluster. Backing up the 27-year-old’s bravado is a deep reservoir of mental strength developed over years of training and overcoming unthinkable tragedy.

His home in the tiny mountain town of Silverton, Colorado, is a laboratory of buzzy mental toughness theories. Collins owns the self-regulation to put in thousands of training hours, the growth mindset to view challenges as opportunities and the intrinsic motivation to sustain his passion in a sport with minimal financial gain.

If there’s one thing all behavioral psychological theories agree on, it’s that action follows belief. Collins is a true believer in his capacity to persevere through the most grueling situations.

“When [racing] sucks, like ultimately sucks,” Collins says. “I fucking love that because I know I can get through that better than most people can.”

You won’t find many endurance athletes who aren’t mentally tough, yet there’s one other element in his mental makeup that gives Collins his competitive edge. It’s one he’s worked on both consciously as a competitor and subconsciously since a childhood marked by the death of a parent. He has the ability to transcend pain and suffering and enter into a meditative mindset that combines all of these factors to produce an optimal state of flow.

“You make your own reality,” Collins says. “The more you decide to be positive and believe in that positivity, the better it goes.”

That skill has nurtured and sustained a longshot career filled with victories in some of the toughest races on the circuit. For a time, Collins felt like no race was too big for him to handle. Then, in the summer of 2018, he met his match in the Italian Alps during Tor des Geants, a 205-mile sufferfest on the shortlist of the world’s most punishing races.

Now, almost two years later, he’s relying on his mental fortitude to bring him back from the brink of devastating injuries and the tragic loss of his brother Keihland, who took his own life last November.

There are many levels of suffering in ultras, but when runners talk about their pain, they are referring to the point when physical discomfort collides with cognitive distress, creating a condition that is both excruciating and exhilarating. As Collins puts it, breaking through that wall is like experiencing a mental orgasm.

For the experienced runner, this is the point of the entire endeavor. Some call it ‘the pain cave.’ Others refer to it as ‘the dark place.’ Collins calls it ‘going to hell and back,’ and it’s where races are won or lost.

Growing up, Collins was intimately familiar with pain. When he was 11, his father Sammy died from an overdose of alcohol and pills. A 1991 Gulf War vet, he struggled with addiction for years after getting out of the service. Avery’s earliest, and only, memories of his dad were from visiting him in prison.

“I’ve always been the type of person to get over things easily,” Collins says. “Not that I’m emotionless. For me it’s a life goes on sort of thing. I just find a way to become occupied.”

While they barely knew one another, Avery’s grandfather Sam Collins says Avery and his father were alike in so many ways, from their looks to their attitude.

“Sammy always took everything to the nth degree, which Avery does,” Sam Collins says. “He couldn’t stand to be in second place, but Sammy wasn’t athletic. I don’t know where (Avery) gets that. He can dig deep somewhere. He’s had a lot of obstacles. You would think that it’d throw him a curve, really, and he smacks it out of the park.”

Collins split his childhood between Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his mom and the North Carolina coast with his fraternal grandparents. Amid this changing environment, Collins created his own sense of order.

“When he was in kindergarten everything had to be nice and neat,” his mom Megan Schenider says. “Everything was very detailed, structured somewhat. Avery has always expected so much more of himself than most.”

Collins’ capacity for athletic suffering grew out of a competitive fire that threatened to consume him as a young man. He channeled that drive into his first love of basketball, but dealing with team dynamics proved to be a challenge. When he wasn’t beating himself up, he would take out his frustrations on his teammates.

“When Avery was younger, you would never believe it now, he had a temper,” Schneider says. “There were specific times when he got very angry on the court, I had to go remove him and have a chat with him. I used to tell him you need to get in a mindset and you need to block this out if it’s bothering you. That’s how he deals with that pain.”

Running came into his life by accident. In his early 20s, Collins was a broke college student in North Carolina going nowhere fast. He couldn’t afford a gym membership, so he began running to stay in shape. Almost on a whim, Sam suggested he sign up for a race. Despite never running competitively before, Collins wound up winning against a field that included a handful of collegiate runners.

Suddenly he had a direction, and in running he found a healthier outlet for his competitive side. Collins began exploring longer and longer distances and fell in love with the peaceful quiet that comes from being alone in the wilderness. He would blast off the line like the inexperienced rabbit he was just to get ahead of the pack and be alone. Out there with no one to rely on but himself, Collins felt unstoppable, which he was. He began to rack up victories in races around North Carolina and Indiana.

Collins’ partner Sabrina Stanley, who is also an elite ultrarunner, is the Type-A Yin to Collins’ laid-back Yang. Described by one and all as the most competitive person they’ve ever met, Stanley is somewhat mystified by Collins’ ability to experience excruciating pain and remain upbeat and positive.

‘It’s crazy that there’s somebody like him out there,” she says. “He is so forgiving and just a wonderful human. I beat myself up three out of every five runs. I’ve heard him do that maybe once a year.”

Along with individual success, Collins found that his running provided inspiration and hope for friends and family who were struggling with addiction and other health issues. He took his work as a role-model seriously, especially for his younger brother Keihland.

Collins worried about his brother constantly. A dozen years younger, Keihland was getting into trouble, making bad decisions. He was either way up high or way down low, and would occasionally tell their mom he wasn’t sure he belonged on the planet. Although he was often exasperated by his brother’s choices, Collins didn’t want to add to the tension, so instead he focused on setting as positive an example as possible.

Early in his career, during a 100-miler in Indiana with his family watching, Collins came into an aid station with a golf-ball sized knot hanging off his Achilles. He was thinking about dropping, but he changed his mind when he saw his family waiting for him. Collins wrapped his leg in duct tape and finished second.

Collins isn’t one to let any kind of injuries make him quit. A few weeks before heading to Italy for Tor, he and Stanley were driving through Kansas when their car was in a collision with a semi-truck. Collins walked away from the accident confident he’d be competitive.

Jeremy Jacob believes Collins has a ‘superpower.’ A film producer and amateur runner 15 years his senior, Jacob first became aware of Collins when he was crewing at the Colorado 200 in the summer of 2015. “He ran off the front of the race and was never to be seen again,” Jacob says.

Intrigued, Jacob reached out and became drawn in by Collins’ beguiling world view.

“He knows he’s not the fastest in the world, but he wants to be the grittiest and the toughest because that’s a world he can live in,” Jacob says. “He’s very comfortable being Avery. He’s going to mess up sometimes, but he’s always going to own it.”

By any standard, Collins is an elite athlete. While his speed is not world class, Collins can tick off 5:30 miles and estimates he could run a road marathon in 2:34. He’s also an accomplished backcountry snowboarder and aspiring mountaineer.

Steve Warfel, his physical therapist at KinetiChain in Aspen, works with a variety of professional athletes, including football players. He likens Collins to an NFL running back. “Solidly built and light,” Warfel says. “Very graceful, long strides.”

What takes Collins into the winner’s circle is not physical talent, however. It’s an ability to lean so far into the experience that he’s able to achieve what Buddhists call ‘not-self’, a state of blankness where nothing exists except the present moment.

“The vast majority of the time that he’s out there by himself in the high alpine, he’s able to not think,” Jacob says. “I can’t comprehend that, but I feel like that’s his superpower.”

It’s perhaps not as mystical as Jacob makes it sound. Intrigued by the idea of happiness, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted research into what he termed ‘optimal experiences.’ Essentially, he looked into the conditions that made people happy.

What he found is a phenomenon that manifests when technical skill is deployed in a challenging environment to create a fulfilling, immersive experience. He called this period of controlled consciousness ‘the flow state.’

This is not a passive experience, nor is the journey necessarily pleasant. Rather, as Csikszentmihalyi writes, “These moments occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.”

Csikszentmihalyi has identified 10 preconditions of reaching a flow state. Not all are necessary, but some combination helps trigger the right alchemy in the brain. Physical exertion happens to be a precursor, especially in a sport like trail running that requires effort and concentration over long periods of time.

In flow, neurological lines become untangled so information cycles through the brain to the body removing all barriers between thought and action. Attaining the flow state may feel like an epiphany, but it’s not a divine accident. It takes effort, preparation, and the right environment to work its magic.

“That’s our goal, really, is zen,” says Devon Olson, Collins’ long-time training partner. “There will be a lot of times we won’t say a word to each other for two or three hours. Just flow. That’s what you’re trying to achieve. Not feel anything. Not happy, not sad, not anxious. Nothing. He’s able to fill up space without sound and words.”

This ability has allowed Collins to carve out a niche as a full-time ultrarunner able to target the toughest races. From the beginning of his career, he set his sights on Tor des Geants.

In the summer of 2018, Collins headed to Italy with Stanley and Jacob fully intent on winning his first high profile international event. There was no doubt in his mind he was going to crush the race. Instead, it nearly broke him.

Tor Des Geants is notorious for its difficult conditions. The course makes its way through the Aosta Valley on the Italian side of the Alps with 25 mountain passes totaling almost 79,000 feet of elevation — the equivalent of running up and down Mt. Everest two and a half times.

“I’ve been around some of the hardest races that you can possibly do and Tor is two to three times up from anything happening in the U.S.,” says Jacob who traveled to Italy to document the race and help crew with Stanley. “Unless you go to the Alps and see those mountains, it’s hard to understand.”

There are seven 8,000-foot climbs and a descent that loses over 10,000 feet of elevation during a continuous 20-mile decline. That quad crusher comes about halfway through the race when there are still more than 100 miles left to run.

Temperatures swing wildly between the late summer heat of the valley floor to the freezing cold of the mountains. The terrain is technical and rocky — “dangerous as fuck,” to use Collins’ phrase. In 2013, a runner named Yuan Yang died when he slipped and hit his head after a night of rain.

The cutoff for finishing Tor is 150 hours. Collins figured it would take him three days, about 72 hours, to complete the event. Of the nearly 1,000 runners who would be taking the starting line, Collins was one of only a handful in serious contention for a podium spot reserved for the top three finishers.

It’s safe to say none of the others were hit by a semi truck two weeks before the race. Collins walked away from that accident believing he had emerged unscathed. He had not.

The first big hint of trouble was his back. Even before the race, it kept tightening up on him. He chalked that up to the long flight and less than perfect bed in their Italian rental.

From the beginning of the race, it was clear Collins wasn’t himself. He had stomach issues, the result of an avoidable mistake when he took gels loaded with caffeine. His headlamp kept malfunctioning the first night, creating unnecessary stress.

Still, by the end of the second day, Collins had fought his way back into contention and moved into seventh place. This was when he had planned to make his move, yet he knew something wasn’t right.

“Coming into the halfway point, I remember telling Sabrina I was so insanely frustrated,” Collins says. “I was expecting to have this next gear and I couldn’t find it.”

That’s when everything got dark.

At Tor there are seven massive aid stations called Life Bases spread out roughly every 30 miles with smaller mountain huts along the way called rifugios. The plan was to sleep at the Donnas Life Base for no more than an hour. When Collins came into a hut prior to Donnas and asked for an hour and 45 minutes of rest, Jacob knew he was done racing.

“I’ve never heard him go that direction on things,” Jacob says. “He was there an hour later than I expected. He’s an hour behind the front runners. If he sleeps now he’s telling me he’s giving up. If I hadn’t been filming and Sabrina wasn’t there, my guess is he quits there.”

After Collins woke up and headed back out into the night, he texted Stanley from the trail looking for reassurance. He was 100 miles into the 200-mile race and all he wanted to do was sleep. Just a little rest, a brief reprieve to delay the inevitable. He was losing the biggest race of his life.

He knew what place he was in and he knew who was in front of him. This was bullshit, he told himself. Any other day of the week he’d be out in front. He kept waiting for that moment to kick in, when he would quiet the doubt in his mind and rise above everyone and everything in his path. Instead he felt utterly useless.

“It was mentally deteriorating to know that I’m in that position right now and I can’t do anything about it,” Collins says. “That mindset just exhausts a body physically. It compiles on top of each other and it only makes it worse.”

Stanley didn’t want to hear it. Collins was looking for the hardest race on the planet. Well, guess what? He found it, and now he was thinking about quitting? Fuck that, she told him. Collins wouldn’t quit, but he still wanted sleep. They compromised.

“Ultrarunning is going through some shit that your body’s never been through and pushing yourself to its absolute limit,” Stanley says. “When that pain hit a level that he’s never experienced before, I had to remind him, ‘This is why you’re out here. You found it.’ So many runners are looking for this. That’s why they do ultras. To get there, I am so jealous of you and so are the many people who want to be in your shoes. You need to embrace it. That’s when he was like, ‘Yeah, I want this pain.’”

When Collins woke up and hobbled out of the aid station, his back felt like it had a million knots. His legs and ankles were taped and heavily swollen, making him feel like a balloon. His mobility was non existent and his gait was thrown off, causing a chain of kinetic reactions, none of them good.

With his competitive goals extinguished, the hardest part of his race was still in front of him. Collins needed to find purpose. He thought about Keihland.

At one point, Collins had suggested Keihland come out to Colorado to live with him and Stanley. Their mom, however, was worried that Keihland might run off; she didn’t want that on anyone’s conscience. Still, Keihland was never far from his thoughts.

As Collins headed off back into the mountains, his mind flashed back to that race in Indiana where his brother was watching. Collins had finished that race for no reason other than his brother. He decided then and there that he would do the same in the Alps.

When the final toll from the truck accident and the race was taken, Collins had two displaced ribs, four displaced vertebrates and a displaced bone in his ankle. His pelvis had shifted a full inch, and his knee wasn’t tracking properly. He finished 11th, 15 hours off his expected time. Ever the competitor, Collins called it “a piss-poor performance.”

Yet, in persevering he found something more profound than prize money or podium glory. Collins came so far through his pain that he found the very essence of the sport, and himself. That revelation would arrive in full more than a year later, on top of a mountain off the coast of Madagascar.

The physical fallout from Tor kept Collins away from running for six months. He came back for the Fat Dog 120 in August of 2019. It was probably too soon, but he won anyway. The pain returned and he and Warfel worked together to get his body back in order.

In October, Stanley and Collins headed to Reunion Island for a 100-mile race called Grand Raid. It’s a massive event, with round-the-clock media coverage including helicopters following the runners. Stanley won, becoming the first American winner in the 25-year history of the race.

Collins, meanwhile, had decided to enter the 58-mile Trail de Bourbon, which was run concurrently with Grand Raid. He only had three weeks to prepare, and was dealing with a variety of ailments including a sore hamstring and debilitating stomach cramps. He took third anyway.

It was during that race that he had his epiphany at the top of Moufat, just as the sun was rising over the ridge. He realized he was too caught up in time and position and needed to go to his peaceful place. It wasn’t about being perfect or effortless. It was simply about being there, feeling everything, and being perfectly fine with it.

“Everything hurt, but it didn’t bother me at all,” Collins says. “The pain was exactly what I wanted and it wasn’t an issue. That was the ultimate flow state when you can cope with something that seemed unmanageable and yet it seemed perfectly manageable.”

After that race, he grappled with whether to run Tor again. He was looking for a sign, something to guide his decision. He found it in the worst possible way in late November.

Collins had been meaning to call home to check in on his brother, but it was a delicate balance. He didn’t want to yell at him and make things worse.

When he got around to calling, it was the morning of Keihland’s death. Collins and Stanley were driving back from a training trip in Utah when they heard the news. They found the nearest airport and Collins flew home for the funeral over Thanksgiving.

“It comes and goes in waves,” Collins says of grief. “As long as I’m out doing something every day and getting after it, it takes my mind off of it.”

Collins keeps Keihland’s favorite necklace tucked into his pack, so he can take his brother with him wherever he goes. Where he’s going is back to Tor with a body that’s primed instead of broken and a focus that goes way beyond competitive goals.

He hopes to run it again in September. Given the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the toll it’s taken on Italy, he’s prepared to wait as long as it takes. The Alps will still be there, and so will his commitment to his brother’s memory.

“I have to be true to myself, and do exactly what Keihland would expect me to do,” Collins says. “Ultimately, as long as the mind/body allows it, I’m not going to stop until I win that race.”