Following is an unpublished chapter of my book Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age. It features my friend Tommy Rivers Puzey, who a couple of weeks ago sent me a series of alarming voice messages from a hospital ICU in Flagstaff, where he lives with his family. Even scarier, Tommy remains there today, on a ventilator, suffering from a COVID-like but undiagnosed respiratory illness that has severely damaged his powerful lungs. It hurt me to cut this chapter in an effort to shrink my book down to a readable size, but I’m pleased to have this opportunity to share it now in Rivers’ honor. I’m confident you’ll come away from reading it with an understanding of why this guy is so special and why everyone who knows him personally is reeling right now. As you can imagine, his medical bills are piling up. A Go Fund Me page has been set up to assist him with these. I’ve donated to it and I urge you to do the same.
80 Days to Chicago
Two miles (give or take) into this morning’s Bagel Run I heard footsteps approaching from behind. Seconds later a bearded runner wearing a hydration pack on his bare back pulled up on my left side, breathing heavily from his pursuit.
“Hi, Matt,” he said casually.
I gave the runner a second look and realized he was none other than Tommy Rivers Puzey, one of the famous Coconino Cowboys, a group that has been described by its marquee member, Jim Walmsley, as “a bunch of reckless runners and best friends from Coconino County . . . united by the desire to push each other in training and learn to embrace the suffering.” Though Walmsley is by far the most celebrated Cowboy, for my money Rivers is the most interesting. Name any country at random and Rivers can probably tell you a story about having run there. I first met him two years ago in Provo, while participating in James “Iron Cowboy” Lawrence’s mind-blowing 50th Ironman triathlon in 50 days (in 50 states!).
“You’re looking fit,” Rivers said. “I was checking out your legs while I was chasing you down.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve lost a bit of weight.”
Thirteen days ago, when I left California, I weighed 150.6 pounds. Today I am five pounds lighter, and the change is noticeable. The man I saw in the bathroom mirror this morning was all veins and striations—much more so than the guy I’m used to seeing. I attribute the sudden drop mainly to my efforts to eat like Matt Llano (less beer, bread, and cheese, more variety in my starches and veggies), though Faubs tells me everyone loses weight at 7,000 feet because the resting metabolic rate is higher up here.
“So, what have you been up to lately?” I asked.
Rivers and I last crossed paths in March, at a book signing I did at Run Flagstaff, the local running specialty store. That was only four months ago, but four months is an eternity in a life such as his.
“I’m tired, man,” Rivers said tiredly. “When I saw you in the spring I’d just gotten back from Salamanca, where I did a mountain race.”
I remembered this, but the rest of the story was news. A few days after our book-signing encounter, Rivers jetted off to Italy, accompanied by Caleb Schiff, a big name in the local cycling community and owner of Pizzicletta, a bike-themed pizza joint. The pair spent a week touring the mountains of Tuscany and the trails of Cinque Terre, fueled by focaccia, kinder, cannoli, fried calamari, and other street foods. The following week, Rivers (who has an enviable set of abs) modeled for the clothing retailer H&M in the quarries near Carrera, where Michelangelo got his stone and where Caleb got the marble for the countertops in his restaurant. Home just long enough to catch up on sleep, Rivers then flew to Boston to participate in a certain marathon. On arriving there, he began a 48-hour fast, dropping 12 of the 18 pounds he gained in Italy, and finished 16th in the world’s most hallowed footrace with a personal-best time of 2:18:20. Two weeks later, Rivers finished third in the Calgary Marathon. Four weeks after that, he found himself in Auburn, California, having been enlisted to pace Jim Walmsley through the last segment of the Western States 100, beginning from the American River crossing at mile 78. Favored to win the race, Jim overheated and dropped out—at mile 78. This was a month ago. Last week, Rivers completed his doctorate in physical therapy. He has three kids.
“I don’t know how you do it,” I said.
We’d covered four miles at this point and it was time for me to turn around. Apprised of this, Rivers elected to turn with me.
“What about you?” he asked. “How has the pro running experience been for you so far?”
“It’s been great,” I said. “I’ve run 74 miles in the past week—more than I’ve done in eight years—and I feel terrific. There’s a long way to go still, but right now my legs are handling the work easily.”
“Interesting,” Rivers said. “Why do you think that is?”
“At the risk of sounding like some wide-eyed mystic,” I said, “I honestly think the environment has a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, running 74 miles in seven days in a beautiful place surrounded by teammates is less stressful to my body than doing the same thing alone back home.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Rivers said. “Did I ever tell you about my Costa Rica experience?”
“No,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”
In 2009, shortly after Rivers and his college sweetheart, Steph, were married, Steph was accepted into a master’s degree program in conflict studies in La Paz, Costa Rica. Never one to miss an opportunity for adventure, Rivers (who had previously done missionary work in Brazil) took a leave of absence from his undergraduate studies in Hawaii to accompany his bride to Central America, where he immersed himself in the country’s thriving mountain running scene, which revolves around a celebrated 20-mile race to the top of a 12,500-foot mountain. Confident he could contend for the win, Rivers spent six months training for the event only to have his ass handed to him, finishing 45 minutes behind the winner in 24th place.
Humbled, but also curious, Rivers (who speaks fluent Spanish) quizzed one of the top finishers about his training.
“I don’t train,” the runner told him.
“What do you mean?” Rivers asked.
“I don’t have time to train. I have too much work to do.”
“What kind of work?”
“I’m a porter.”
“What’s a porter?”
“We climb the mountain every night. We carry the gear for the tourists who are going to climb it the next day so it’s waiting for them when they make it to the top. Then we run back down.”
“We?” Rivers asked.
“All of us,” the porter said, gesturing toward some of the other top finishers.
Now thoroughly intrigued, Rivers returned to La Paz determined to become a porter himself. He befriended a few of the local runner-porters and spent the following summer trekking with them by moonlight to the top of the mountain and running back down, abandoning his normal training routine. A few weeks before he and Steph flew home, Rivers ran a solo time-trial up the mountain, retracing the racecourse that had humbled him several months before, reaching the top 30 minutes faster.
“That’s really cool,” I said as Rivers and I cruised the last few blocks to Biff’s Bagels. “But what does any of it have to do with me and Flagstaff?”
“Those porters were training,” Rivers said. “They just didn’t think of it as training. Going up and down the mountain was part of their life, something they accepted without questioning or resistance. Even though it was physically demanding, it wasn’t emotionally draining. They were at home on the mountain and with each other. They raced well because everything was in synch: their work, their group, their environment, and their lives.”
“I get it now,” I said.