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A Journey Through Grief - Stephen Eland's Lockdown Race

Rob Howard / 28.06.2020
Stephen Eland during his Lockdown race
Stephen Eland during his Lockdown race / © Stephen Eland

When Stephen Eland saw the Rootstock Racing Lockdown virtual event he knew it was the right time for him to get back into adventure racing and get outside, but he wasn’t prepared for the emotional journey it would take him on.

He told Rob Howard how his participation in the Lockdown event came about and how it helped him take another step forward in coping with grief for the death of his son.

Tell me a bit about your adventure racing background?

I’m one of the generation inspired by Eco-Challenge, a mid-pack racer and a dot-watcher of the World Series events.

I used to race lots of regional 24/48 hour events and didn’t travel too far as 3 kids and a busy job as a patent attorney meant I didn’t have the time. I was racing in the mid-Atlantic and New England events and found 24 hour races were the best for me to be competitive. In the shorter races there are too many very fast people! Something a bit longer suited me.

Then in 2014 I raced the Untamed New England race, and we did OK finishing mid-pack, which our team was very happy with. It was a chance to see the very best teams up close (some of the time anyway) and they were like superheroes with the speed they covered such a huge course.

Then in 2018 we were scheduled to race Untamed again when my son Michael, who was 19 at the time and had started college in Virginia, died in a vehicle accident. I remember calling the team to tell them what had happened and that I wouldn’t be going.

What has happened since the accident?

The trauma and tragedy of grief takes a toll, it affects everything you do and your mindset. You feel disconnected and unmotivated about things which you were passionate about before.

It’s like you can’t let yourself have fun, to do so would seem somehow to dishonor the memory of my son, especially to be outside having a great time, doing the things we used to do together. He was my adventure buddy and in a way I lost both Michael and my ability to enjoy competing outdoors.

Grieving is so exhausting and I didn’t make time for other activities, I lost fitness and put on weight.

Stephen Eland during his Lockdown race
Stephen Eland during his Lockdown race

How did you get active again?

I was starting to do some running this year and planning to take part in some ultras, motivated at first by an invite from Michael’s fraternity to take his place in a 90 mile charity relay run. That got me training and we kept in touch with his friends in Virginia.

The Appalachian Trail runs by his school and on trips there I hiked some of it and had the idea to take 2 weeks to hike the 400 mile Virginia section of the trail. Once I’d had that idea it became real and I had the goal of hiking Michael home in the year he would have graduated.

Then along came Covid 19 and plans had to change, but when I saw the Lockdown virtual event I had an alternative.

Why did the Lockdown Virtual race appeal to you?

The time felt right for me – I was ready to step outside again and starting to get fitter and I thought rather than bail on plans for racing again that I could do it. I even thought I might be first to ‘finish’ it – even though that has nothing to do with anything and it’s not a competitive event like that!

Some of it seemed a bit “different”, but it was a goal, a way to motivate myself.  Plus it was fun and different and I know Brent and Abby from Rootstock Racing. I trust them and wanted to support them.

I guess I was hoping to do something to break the cycle and move forward and The Lockdown gave me that opportunity. But I had no idea how tough it would be and the places it would take me.

(Ed. The event required racers to plan their own course and complete 21 hours of run/bike/paddle activities over 96 hours, including a night section, with some geocaching and some specific requirements for places to visit.  You can find out all about it on their Facebook page.)

Tell me about The Lockdown and what happened?

I may have planned my own adventure but I had no idea the journey it would take me on.

As an example I ran through a 3000 acre park nearby which I’d used to set up a rogaine style AR for Michael and his buddies many years ago. As I came to some spots we used I was thinking about those happy times and my son, and I found the grief was taking my breath away, literally. I could hardly breathe and had to come to a stop. I couldn’t grieve and run at the same time. I had to keep moving forward.

One of my old classic training outings involved a run/bike/packraft route which goes to the Brandywine River and a historic bridge there, and I decided to use it. The event instructions specified visiting a water feature, a historical monument, two bridges, and also a tombstone or cemetery. My route passed an old Quaker cemetery where Michael is buried. I hadn’t been there since the anniversary of his death.

It all fit together but it was like any other adventure race: it looks fine on paper and map but when you come to do it – well, things often don’t go as you’d planned. Another way it was like a typical race was that I was physically tired and as in many long races you are much less in control of your emotions.

         Michael Eland's Grave

So, after 10 hours of activity I found myself at my son’s graveside dressed in biking shorts and carrying a packraft. I couldn’t believe I was there, dressed like that! It was an ‘is this really happening’ moment. It was a moment when you know inside that it’s not going to plan and you’re not sure how to carry on.

It was so hard and for a time it broke me, but I did carry on, knowing I could enjoy myself outdoors again and remember Michael by doing that. It was a long road to get there.

Later I was on a night paddle, the first time since Untamed, and I’d forgotten how peaceful it was and how small and insignificant you feel in nature. It was so dark and the stars were so bright and I was alone and happy to be there.

Stephen was one of the first to complete ‘The Lockdown’, and is planning more virtual challenges. He is looking at some Everest virtual challenges to climb (by running or riding) the height of the mountain in stages.  When he can return to Virginia his AT trek will still be there and having completed The Lockdown he will be the better prepared to enjoy the hike and remember his son.

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