Brian Costilow: Embracing the Moment

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At 40 years old, Brian Costilow recently completed his tenth consecutive Leadville 100. In layman's terms, this means that in each of the last 10 summers he has competed in, and successfully completed, one of the world’s most respected and grueling ultra-distance running races through the mountains of Colorado. His is a feat of extraordinary endurance, for the consecutive-nature of this accomplishment requires more than an ability to run for long periods of time, but an unusual ability to remain healthy and committed to a goal, a decade in the making.

Brian Costilow possesses the slender, muscular build of the long-distance runner. His calves are hard, knotted balls, and his wide chest is adorned by visible clavicles and sternum. It is easy to imagine efficient lungs pumping oxygen to every blood cell in his body as he covers great distances of wilderness. He is quiet and reserved, but there is a dry humor that lurks in his conversation, and he is capable of strong laughter.

Brian was born in February of 1974 on the Columbus Air Force Base in Columbus, MS. His father was in the air force, and the family moved frequently until he was 8 years old, before settling in the outskirts of Birmingham, AL. The family’s home was set amidst yet-to-be developed woodlands and pastures, and he and his brother and sister spent their youth playing soccer on the weekends and exploring the deer trails and dirt roads of the adjoining properties after school. “Every year, a new development seemed to creep into what we felt was our haven, and as the population shifted to the suburbs, we watched this natural expanse morph into this de-treed series of wisteria lanes.”

For a man who has run more miles than most people will ever walk, running was not something that Brian fell into naturally as a teenager. He played competitive soccer, and before every training session, his coaches would require that the boys run 3 miles around the field in under 20 minutes. But Brian hated this running. “As a 14 and 15 year old, 3 miles just felt undoable. We’d all gripe and complain, but we’d get through it. It’s how we started every practice for three years.”

That training paid off, and Brian attended the University of the South, where he played soccer and immersed himself in the rolling wildernesses of the Cumberland Plateau. During pre-season, the coaches at Sewanee would test the team’s resolve by dropping them off at the bottom of Monteagle Mountain and leaving them to run back to campus, a 7 mile run with 4,000 feet of vertical elevation gain.

At Sewanee, he’d been a Natural Resources major and knew that he was happiest in the woods. After graduating, he moved back to Birmingham, and he recounts this period of stepping out into adulthood, as one filled with dreams of the west. He decided that he wanted to hike a section of the Continental Divide Trail in Montana by himself, and so to save for the trip, he worked three jobs: sales associate at Alabama Outdoors, photographer’s assistant, and baker. With the absence of the regularity of team training sessions, he began climbing and running to stay fit. In the mid 90’s Birmingham didn’t yet have state of the art climbing gyms, and a friend built a makeshift woody in a storage unit. Brian would get off work at 11pm and climb for an hour to stay fit. On weekends, he’d trail run at Birmingham’s Oak Mountain State Park.

After 10 months in Birmingham, he’d saved enough to buy an old pickup Toyota truck. With no other agenda than to hike the Divide, he set off for Missoula. After hiking the section of the Divide Trail through the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall Wildernesses, as well as through Glacier National Park, he’d caught the mountain bug, and ended up renting an apartment in Missoula and remaining there for the next four years. Describing his experience on the trail, Brian says matter of factly, “It was hard. I got lonely toward the end, because there was no one to share it with. But that was the whole idea. To see if I could do it by myself.”

In Missoula, he found work as a baker in a Buddhist-run Indian restaurant and took classes in philosophy and ethics at the University. He spent his summer weekends alpine climbing and traversing, and his winters ice climbing in the Bitterroots. His time in Missoula provided the impetus for a new relationship with running. A college friend, who’d become a strong climber, invited Brian to Chamonix for a summer in the Alps. In preparation, Brian began seriously training with what he describes as “burly ridge traverses” and steep ascents of the grassy buttes that surround Missoula.

When he returned from Chamonix, Brian realized he’d fallen in love with the ridges he’d traversed in the Bitterroots and Mission Mountains of Montana. “They provided a combination of alpine climbing, trail running, pure scrambling, and peak bagging. I just couldn’t get enough, and the further I got into it, the easier it became. To this day, I still love going up, especially if there’s a peak involved.”

Brian credits the development of his patience for ultra-running to his early training runs on the buttes around Missoula. When he started, he could make it up 800 yards. After a few weeks, he could make it 1600 yards, and after a month or two, he could run to the top of every butte in the surrounding area. “I’ve never learned more applicable lessons than on those mountains and hills. The lessons learned there were invaluable as I moved into ultras. I knew that with patience came mastery.”

Ask Brian what it takes to run 100-mile races and he’ll describe it as a process of acknowledging and then responding to a full-spectrum of human emotion. To run long-distances, most runners and coaches will advise runners to build a base: an adequate number of miles run per week. For many elite runners, 60-80 mile weeks are not uncommon, but Brian does not describe preparation for ultras with the expected invocation of base building. Instead, he describes the progression into ultra running as an ongoing collecting of running experiences. The point he’s making is that when people embark on the pursuit of long-distance running, there is opportunity for them to become stronger and happier when they can interact with every single run as its own unique journey.

Brian is quick to point out that embracing pain is the only way to persevere through it. “To run ultras, you have to understand that you’re running all day, and so you go through a lifetime of emotions. You’re pushing the envelope of your physical and emotional capability. You inevitably go through a lot of suffering. But if you can teach yourself to embrace that suffering when it hits, then you can interact with it as an experience that is completely fleeting. If you’re unwilling to become wrapped up and panicked by the pain, to keep moving, then those moments will pass, and in their passing, you’ll feel the euphoria of your own strength.”

Armchair observers of his long-distance running often ask Brian if he’s a masochist. “I’m not,” he assures me, and “I don’t necessarily run for that proverbial runner’s high either.” The runner’s high is a feeling of pleasure people experience as endorphins kick in after exertion. For Brian, the euphoria of this complex passion is woven into the entire experience. Pain and joy exist concurrently within the moments of duress—of screaming lungs, oxygen-deprived quadriceps, acidic shards under the ribs. They provide something primordial and vivid that is life giving. Brian describes this moment as knowing you’re alive, and it is within the realm of this holistic experience that Brian finds joy and gratitude. “I like testing my limits. To know that I can set off and see 100 miles of trail and mountain with my own two feet, man I don’t know, it’s just a spectacular feeling of freedom. I don’t think it’s a unique feeling. Human nature has always driven us to push our own limits.”

That Brian’s attitude around running is contemplative is not surprising. One thousand miles of racing in the Rockies over the last ten years affords ample time to confront the self. But Brian has taken this contemplation further than many. After 4 years in Missoula, he returned to the southeast, enrolling in Vanderbilt University’s School of Divinity, whose strong curriculum in environmental ethics was conspicuously attractive. Having spent 4 years working in a Buddhist-establishment and studying philosophy on weeknights, he found himself attracted to the idea of studying western civilization and exploring the theological and philosophical foundations of western society. For the next three years, Nashville was his home, and he spent the majority of those years reading the texts of post-modernists, writing about what he was reading, and then thinking about what he was writing on long runs through the humid woods and pastures of central Tennessee. The running was cathartic, and this was the time in Brian’s life when he first began racing 50Ks. “I remember coming off 8 hours of annotating Hegel, who had this very cynical and critical view of the whole economic structure of the modern world, and I needed the distance and the exertion to really process it all.”

After Vanderbilt, Brian married a woman, with whom he had two boys. They moved to Leadville, and Brian trained and worked in the Rockies. In 2011, after 8 years, they decided to move to Chattanooga, TN to be closer to family. Brian misses the west, but there is no place east of the Mississippi he’d rather live than Chattanooga. He loves the Cumberland Plateau and the mountains of East Tennessee, as much as he loves the Rockies. “If I could live half the year here and half the year in Colorado I would,” he says. “People out west don’t really get the idea of coming east. It goes against the grain of manifest destiny. But if people spent time in these woods and coves, they’d learn that the biodiversity here is insane. It’s one of the most unique places on the planet.”

Today Brian works in the marketing and events department of Rock/Creek, one of the country’s premier outdoor retailers. He organizes group trail runs in the lead-up to the 10 races in the Rock/Creek Trail Series, and he spends time with his two boys, both of whom are showing signs that running will feature heavily in their lives. When I ask him how he reconciles Hegelian criticism and working for the Man, he smiles. “Maybe the whole running thing is a part of handling that challenge to reconcile the various critiques of western society.” He pauses and an almost mischievous smile flashes. “Then again, I do like the gear.”

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