Our positive running story this time is on Joshua Stevens, a professional trail and mountain runner who just happens to live a short distance away from us here in Estes Park, Colorado. Joshua is a father of three, a 24 year army veteran, a vegetarian, and works at Boulder Running Company in Boulder. Back in 2011 he was told he would not likely run again following two spinal surgeries that also left him addicted to opioids. Joshua has started a cool series of interviews with Colorado based top trail and ultra runners called Dig This, check out more at this link. Joshua is a phenomenal runner, and relishes his opportunities to allow Mother Nature to let her weave her healing magic. He combines a gentle humility and concern for all living beings with a fierce competitive drive as a runner. I have recently had the honor to connect with Joshua on the 2019 US Trail Running Conference and a couple of other projects, am delighted to add an interview with Joshua to our positive running story series. Here is the result of our interview:
Can you share a brief history of your running up to the present day?
I came into running as a profession in a much later time frame than most athletes. While I grew up in an active outdoor environment on the coast of Maine I competed only one season in High School Cross Country and Track. I focused on soccer, wresting and tennis (and academics from time to time when I could fit them in!). After my undergraduate work I spent over two decades as an officer in the United States Army serving in a variety of Infantry and Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) where I was reliant on a high level of fitness to perform my job but it wasn’t solely aerobic in nature. While serving several combat tours in Iraq I had been directly exposed to multiple road side bomb (Improvised Explosive Devices) explosions. As a result of these events my cervical spine had been severely compromised requiring two spinal surgeries. Following the second surgery in 2011 I was told that I would not likely run again. While in recovery I read Scott Jurek’s first book Eat and Run and watched the JB Benna film Unbreakable: The Western States 100 (Terry – one of the best running movies ever!). I was inspired to not only run again but to try to do so at a high level. I retired from the Army in 2014 and moved to Asheville, North Carolina and threw myself into trail running. I ran my first 50k distance on the Art Loeb Trail in Pisgah National Forest on my 44th Birthday and haven’t stopped running since.
What are the top three things you enjoy most about running, and why?
1. I enjoy exploring the backcountry throughout the American West, specifically here in my adopted home state of Colorado.
2. I love competing in races typically at the 50 to 100 mile distances.
3. I’m really fond of spending time within the trail running community anytime I can.
I feel like all of these activities are mutually beneficial to my physical, mental and emotional health and truly fortunate to be able to pursue all three simultaneously.
Your Instagram handle is “tumbleweed ultra” – what’s the history on using that name?
The trail name Tumbleweed came by way of my first trail running mentor Adam Hill due to my propensity for making trips to the Emergency Room after ill advised down hill yard sales on technical trails! The ultra tag at the end was from someone who helped me set up my Instagram account a couple of years ago because I was hopeless at the time with social media. Which now allows folks to check out my silliness @tumbleweedultra.
You are an ambassador for the Herren Project, an organization that helps others navigate the road to recovery from the disease of addiction. What is the most important message that you can share as a runner about recovery, and how has running helped you with your own journey?
I always like to start this conversation with the understanding that everyone’s path to recovery is unique and as such it is very personal. What my recovery process looks like may or may not reflect anyone else’s journey but I hope that my story may serve to help someone find their way back to a loving and healthy existence. I became addicted to opioids following my first cervical spinal surgery in the mid 2000’s and I subsequently battled that dependency for a number of years. My recovery is not a linear path and it included relapses and setbacks but I eventually found my way to be free from the grip of opioids. Running played a central role in recovery but more than the act of running it was my re introduction to nature as a trail runner that made my recovery journey possible. Spending hours outside exploring trail networks and as ‘New Age’ as it sounds- and I’m acutely aware that it does 🙂 – simply connecting with our natural space served as a healing salve. It was one of the attributes that attracted me to my partner Ray Nypaver. When we met she was in Graduate School at Naropa University working toward her M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with a concentration in Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy. It’s been incredible to learn from her from an academic perspective what it is about being outdoors that created the optimal emotional, physical and spiritual conditions for my recovery. It’s been an honor and a privilege to use my platform as a professional runner to raise awareness and funding for Herren Project.
You have a plant based lifestyle that you share with your partner, Ray Nypaver, and many other top level MUT runners. When did you change to a plant based lifestyle, and why, and what would you say to someone that is considering making the switch themselves?
I enjoy fielding this question any time I have the opportunity to do so. To begin with it’s important to establish that I’m in no way a subject matter expert in the field of nutrition and I am not a medical practitioner but I feel that I’m a pretty solid example of the benefits of living a plant based lifestyle. Like recovery my path to a plant based life was not linear. Sometime around late 2011 or early 2012 I was facing an existential crisis of sorts. My second cervical spinal surgery had been performed the day before Thanksgiving Day in 2011 and I had been told that I would not likely ever run again. I was bedridden, addicted to opioids, clinically depressed, unable to maintain my fitness and approaching retirement from the only vocation I had ever truly known. I was imploding and knew that I needed to choose a new azimuth to follow or I would not be long for this world. As I mentioned previously, reading Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run inspired me on several levels. I began my path toward a fully plant based lifestyle because I felt it would be a radical departure from how I had been consuming food my entire life and I had hoped that it might facilitate my rebirth from surgeries and addiction. I began as a pescatarian and then a vegetarian and then a vegan and back before fully committing to a pure plant based lifestyle. Along the way I discovered that my moral and ethical compass demanded that I serve this planet and the animal kingdom as a plant based human which provides rewards that extend far beyond a healthy body and an increased fitness level. Ray, Sandi Nypaver, Sage Canaday and I try to support a local organization named Luvin Arms by connecting community through compassion whenever we are able to.
2019 is going to be a huge racing year for you! It seems like a number of opportunities have opened up for you. Can you share what the year has brought to you so far, and what you have coming up over the rest of 2019?
Principally 2019 has brought me happiness and peace. I feel like my racing results thus far underscore how much I love training and racing right now. Early this year I became aware that I had been selected in the lottery to race the Leadville Trail 100 Run in August and that I had also been extended an invitation to race the Badwater 135 in July. To round out the season elected to compete in the Badwater Ultra Cup which includes the Badwater Cape Fear 51.4 mile race in North Carolina in March and the Badwater Salton Sea 81 mile race in California in April. I have been pleased with finishing 2nd Overall at Badwater Cape Fear and 4th Overall at Badwater Salton Sea which currently places me in second place in the Ultra Cup standings with the culminating event the Badwater 135 approaching quickly in July. My hope is to continue to put in the work, show gratitude to my sponsors, friends and family for their unwavering support and to race as hard as I possibly can at Badwater and Leadville. I’m planning on closing out 2019 with Across the Years in December. Who knows? It’s possible I could actually pull it off!
Have these racing opportunities come as a surprise to you, and can you share your manifestation secrets?
The truth is that most of the opportunities that have come my way in the sport of ultra running have come as a surprise to me. I’m surprised every time a company displays an interest in sponsoring me or using me to inspire folks. I’m shocked every time that I’m in the same room with athletes that I’ve idolized from afar and more so when they know who I am. As far as manifesting success I don’t have any groundbreaking insight or advice. I work hard and I use simple quotes as a mantra of sorts. For a while I had the late President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt’s partial quote “Get Action” displayed in my house. I’ve used my bib #711 from the 2017 DNF at Leadville as a form of focus by placing it on my microwave so that I saw it everyday in my apartment in Boulder. Currently I’ve got my ‘A’ goal times for Badwater and Leadville on a post it note displayed on the bathroom vanity mirror.
You now live in Estes Park, just down the road from myself and my wife Jacqueline! What do you like best about being an ultra runner living on our mountain town, and what difference has living and training here made to your running?
Wow! Where do I start? There is nothing like living in Estes Park and I’m madly in love with the community and the space! It has been instrumental in my improved performances in 2019. The luxury of living at 8,200′ above sea level with trail access from my doorstep is a hard combination to beat. The area has every amenity we desire but is largely free of distractions. I’m able to live a very simple life here with Ray and subsequently my training and racing have both improved markedly. I think the only people more pleased with the move than Ray and me are my coaches Travis Macy (Macy Endurance Coaching) and Erin Carson (ECFit Boulder). (Pro tip – Joshua’s favorite trail in the area is Twin Sisters!)
You often share words from songs that have meaning to you on your social media posts. What is it about these songs that has moved you, and how important has music been on your journey through life?
Music and Art were my best friends growing up. As the oldest child in a large family I often yearned for my own space. While that didn’t exist in a physical sense I discovered endless hallways and rooms within my mind through reading, writing and listening to music. I’m a fairly prolific collector of vinyl records and have an embarrassment of riches in my digital music catalog. I’ve also played in several bands, written, recorded and produced music. And while I’m often poorly equipped to convey my feelings and thoughts verbally I’ve always found a safe space in doing so through music and lyrics that resonate deeply with me. Sometimes they are heavy, sometimes they are light and oftentimes they are just nonsense but I always enjoy attempting to match the beauty of what I see during my runs visually with a piece of music that serves as a soundtrack for the space I was in emotionally at the time I viewed something beautiful in nature. As un hip as it sounds I like the medium of social media for that endeavor.
Can you share one thing that is uniquely Joshua that no one else would know by looking at you?
I like to perform ridiculous dances while talking gibberish using cartoon voices to try to make Ray laugh when she is reading or working.
If we could share one key message on your behalf to the World, what would it say?
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Muhammad Ali.
Joshua, we wish you every success with your Badwater Cup races and with Leadville. I look forward to sharing a run with you on some of our home town trails soon, to feel the love that Mother Nature so generously shares with us, and look forward to working with you on the US Trail Running Conference.
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