Ex-addict finds his ‘call of the wild’ in ultra running
Scott Waldrop describes himself as “a weird misfit amalgamation of wanderlust, extreme sport, and ability to tolerate prolonged agony.”
Is it any wonder he has found a passion for and success in ultra running? His hard-core approach was molded by his father, a Marine. And the toughness in his DNA goes back to his grandparents, “badasses,” who raced and broke wild horses. “Those two could do anything and were like superheroes to me.”
Waldrop, too, needed to be broken from the grip that drug and alcohol addiction had placed on him. Today, his life still incorporates his love for heavy metal that he discovered as a youth, as well as his passion for the trails he developed in his childhood.
The road to addiction
His family is “generally adventurous, all type A and audacious. They were/are all super crazy (I love you family!) and they reared me for such craziness. This is the kind of crazy that does epic things, makes lots of money and influences people by trailblazing. But behind the walls some batshit crazy behavior was going on – physical, mental, intellectual and emotional abuse.”
As young as age 6, Waldrop learned about distance running and pacing from his father. His dad also took him on all sorts of adventures. Cycling. Swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Mountain climbing in the Great Smoky Mountains.
“We were never ‘loafing around,’” Waldrop says. “In my dad’s words, ‘We’re not the kind of people who sit on the couch and eat potato chips.’ Mom left him to raise me and he taught me to cope with emotional pain positively through physical activity. Unfortunately I deviated from his template for quite a while.”
In high school and college, he “drank, smoke, took drugs and lived like a heathen.”
Waldrop had no interest in cross-country or track. He was fueled with the rushes of half pipe/freestyle skiing, freestyle BMX and heavy metal music. “I loved the whole The Bones Brigade/Powell Peralta skating culture of the time, so my bedroom was like a big collage of Steve Caballero, Motley Crue and Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues.”
Then, at age 13, he suffered a compound fracture in his left elbow in a “really gnarly skating accident. The bone splintered out of the skin. It took me a long time to recover. Around that time my stepmom was dying of cancer and my biological mom had more or less ‘peaced out.’ I kind of got lost in the mix at home.”
Waldrop turned to alcohol (his favorite), as well as marijuana, LSD, PCP and ecstasy. He also began playing guitar, which he still does today in his band, Twisted Tower Dire.
“Developing this passion ultimately saved me, though it would take me on a convoluted journey on the ocean of booze and a rendezvous with the weirdest freaks that walk the face of the Earth,” he says. “Still, I never lost my outdoor ‘edge’ and wanderlust. I wasn’t a typical ‘dress in black’ pasty metalhead afraid of sunlight. I would work off hangovers by mountain biking or trail running with my husky.”
For two summers in the 1990s, Waldrop became “purposefully homeless” with friends, exploring the country in a Toyota Corolla. “We were hiking our national parks: Grand Canyon, Appalachia, The Rockies, Glacier, Badlands, Yellowstone, Appalachia, etc. This time really ‘cemented’ my wilderness itch. Those places haunted me and beckoned me back for decades to follow.”
Learning how to cope with coming down from booze- and drug-fueled benders has actually helped Waldrop deal with the mental aspects of ultra running.
“Let me preface the following by stating that I don’t suggest, prescribe, or glorify substance misuse. Through ultra running, I found a way to ‘make use of’ or ‘alchemize’ my trauma. Knowing how to endure these drug crashes actually really helped me become an ultra runner years later as I’m familiar with my body’s limits,” he explains, referencing the last time he dropped acid, which was is in 1998. “I was convinced that I no longer existed and that my personality had been replaced by some psychic alien parasite. I understand how ridiculous this may sound to some, but at the time it was very terrifying. I thought I had Syd Barrett-style brain-damage. So, at the end of something like Bigfoot 200 when I’m seeing cities in the woods that aren’t there and touching the glow sticks on the trees trying to remember what significance they have — as if they’re relics from remote antiquity being whispered from another life — I have the cruel lessons of drug abuse to fall back on.”
‘A really dark night’
For many former addicts, there is a defining moment or low point when they realize an immediate and drastic change is necessary. For Waldrop, who was 38 at the time, it was a seemingly typical weeknight at home in the summer of 2014.
“It was a really dark night – not only metaphorically but the sky was moonless and inky,” he says. “It felt like I was in some sort of ‘blacker dark’ but this could have just been the mental illness. I was very drunk and had stayed up all alone. I was vomiting and chain-smoking. My belly hung over my belt – I could grab fistfuls of fat rolls and I hated myself for it. My heart was palpitating. I was crying. I was crawling around on my hands and knees in my unkempt front yard. Despite the delirious swoon I was in, I had a dawning realization I’d reached a threshold of sorts. I knew I’d become just another ‘fucked up drunk.’ I thought I’d never become the person living in filth, abandoned by ambivalent loved ones – and indeed I hadn’t been – at least, not yet. But I knew it was coming soon. My mind was slipping. I really was going to lose myself this time.”
Waldrop recalls getting drunk and blacking out before 10 p.m. every day.
“I was scared as there was some sort of ‘quickening’ going on with my drinking,” he says. “The drinking of course was just a symptom of my greater malady. My personality was changing too – this time for real and lastingly. I was extremely angry. I always had problems controlling my emotions yet always purported to be a ‘happy drunk’ – but I’d become a very mean man and very quickly.”
He started praying, which was a change.
“I never bothered to talk to God much because I didn’t have much to say – nothing heart-felt at least. This time was different. I surrendered. I was beseeching, bellowing, desperate and guttural. I just wanted peace. I wanted the pain to end. I wanted the tears to end.”
But Waldrop was afraid. Afraid of losing everything — his family, music and himself — if he got sober. At the same time, he understood that drugs and alcohol would kill him.
“I had to get out of my own way and lead the way. Having the courage and faith to know – not only with my mind — but also with my heart, that if I went down the path of betterment, those who were to walk with me indeed would be by my side on the other side. This is the wisdom and strength my grandparents, my father, and The Call of Wild (a book he read at age 11 that stayed with him) imparted to me. I trusted in it and that’s really all we can do; have faith in the process.”
Waldrop recalls a scene from “The Empire Strikes Back.” In it, Yoda tells Luke Skywalker that he won’t need his weapons, which leads to the hero decapitating Darth Vader’s apparition.
“That’s it right there – having the courage to face ‘the apparition’ (your fear) without your perceived ‘defenses’ which are illusory – useless to combat an unseen opponent that dwells within,” he explains. “You’ve gotta have the balls to risk it all to fully transform your life. At least, this is how it seems when you’re in the throes of such illness.”
The mental part of his transformation was more challenging.
“You can lose weight, gain muscle, and naturally balance your body’s chemicals, but you’re still left with your past, your future and the multigenerational black cloud of illnesses inherited from ancestors,” he says. “It’s up to us to redress wrong-thinking, negativity and limiting beliefs. These emotions compound in our DNA but we can change our DNA by the way we think. We gotta ask ourselves, ‘Are our thoughts born of love or the opposite?’”
After dabbling in road marathons, Waldrop found his calling.
“I was running marathons trying to get faster and started to realize I was making it ‘not fun,’” he recalls. “I had the self-awareness to feel this familiar ‘buzz kill’ demon creeping in. So, I asked myself, ‘What do I intrinsically love about running? … What childlike joy do I derive from it?’”
His answer was rooted in his childhood. He loved being outside. He loved exploring. “I realized I might be fighting against my aptitude. I wasn’t enjoying the process of a faster 26.2 but enjoyed the training. I didn’t feel like I was getting faster, but I did feel like I could easily go longer and further.”
He remembered his dad talking about “runners that ran across Death Valley” and started doing some research. He discovered two ultra races right in his backyard: Umstead and Old Dominion.
“But 100 miles? It made me ill and at the same time I knew I was doing it. So, I remained silent about my dream so that no one could crush it. I started adding a mile or two to my Saturday runs every week for months until I could go 80 miles from my front door and back. I loved those training runs; getting lost on purpose, exposed to sun and running through hurricanes. I was learning to live again. I was finding my inner child where we’d left off; before cynicism and experience left me cold at such an early age.”
The next recovery challenge for Waldrop was his diet, which he changed in 2015.
After training runs, he would chow down on a pizza. He realized he had hit a plateau. “I was at a crossroads where I had to ask myself, ‘Am I going to run to earn food or am I going to put fuel in my body that makes me run? Who am I? Am I a runner or am I an eater?’”
He didn’t like the sounds of being an ‘eater’ so he hit up the Google machine. Up popped vegan ultra endurance athletes Rich Roll’s “Finding Ultra” and Scott Jurek’s “Eat and Run.”
“Both books were instrumental in convincing me but ‘Finding Ultra’ is the one that truly changed my life,” Waldrop says. “I had to at least try a vegan diet after reading them, but I was beyond skeptical. I think the phrase that got me was Rich Roll saying (totally paraphrasing), ‘As an alcoholic I’m so black and white about things, the vegan diet took my ability to choose out of the equation.’ That was it. I needed very specific rules or I was bound to cheat. It needed to be something exactly like ‘do not drink ever again’ – no wiggle room.”
The turning point in his journey came quickly.
“These are lifestyle choices and not a temporary fix,” he notes. “If you want a healthy body, you need to put good things in it. It’s one of the best ways to practice self-compassion. So, three weeks into a mostly plant-based diet I was eating a chicken leg and I saw a dead animal. I was done.”
With a clean diet, his running improved immediately. His soreness disappeared. He gained speed. His muscles developed quicker. Recovery was easier. His sleep improved. His skin looked better.
“People said I looked like I was younger than they could ever remember me. Just feeling better physically will heal your mind - and after all, the main thing any of us ever really want is some peace. So, I’d highly recommend trying to eat plant-based, and if you don’t experience profound change after a month, then just go back to doing your thing.”
Seeing the light
Waldrop’s Ultrasignup page is full of impressive and challenging races such as Grindstone, the Yeti 100, Bigfoot 200 and the Tarheel Ultra, a 378-mile race he won in December 2018.
In addition to his diet, Waldrop credits UltrAspire gear for helping him through tough ultras. (It’s worth noting that both he and I are ambassadors for UltrAspire.)
Waldrop was running a mountain race when he encountered another runner with a “blinding thing on their waist that looked like a locomotive headlight.” He learned from a friend of his that it was an UltrAspire 600 lumen waistlight.
“It’s so important to be able to have a full depth of vision when you’re running competitively in the dark or even just trying to stay safe at nighttime during ultras,” he explained. “That 600 lumen light has kept me from falling off ridgelines, stepping on rattlesnakes and even prevented me from getting lost in the San Juan and Cascade Mountains more than once, preventing hypothermia. I may owe life and limb to it.”
Waldrop also uses UltrAspire handhelds and vests. “They’re just so ‘on top of the sport’ and our needs as ultra runners. I love that they are ultra-endurance-specific. Plus, they have amazing personable customer interaction. This is what I look for in brands I represent. The fact is, I don’t get paid to represent these brands, so I go after the ones I love and trust anyway – and I hope they love me back.”
Now, Waldrop is at peace. He knows what it takes to ascend from the depths of addiction and offers advice to others struggling.
“You are greatly loved but no one’s coming to save you – not that they don’t want to but because they cannot,” he advises. “You’ve got to start moving, stop blaming and make choices as if you love yourself. I understand you may have lived from very awful and evil things that one can’t understand. Me too. But you are not in control of what’s happened, what’s happening, nor what will happen.”
He believes we only have control over three things: our breath in this one moment, how we feel in this moment and the certainty of death.
“You cannot change or control what is happening right now, but you can use right now. Every moment is an opportunity to consider how circumstances are winds in your sails. Living in the past is depression and living in the future is anxiety. These two scattered positions bewitch us, and we get caught staring back and forth into their respective illusions. Live right now. Each moment is a chance to change. Above all, if you do not believe you can change then it is true. If you believe you can change, this is also true. Thoughts are things. Thoughts manifest our reality and quite literally shape our very bodies. Start making the choices that indicate you LOVE yourself and although it will be very difficult for some time. I promise you – you will begin to change, and it will get easier. You MUST believe. This is everything. Belief is love and doubt is cynicism. Cynicism, sympathy and victimhood are poison for your soul. Get rid of them and believe blindly until you can see.”
Waldrop runs now for the simple joy it gives him and to make sure that he takes full advantage of his time on Earth. While he has quieted his inner demons, he does not need to slay them daily in the form of running.
“Running makes me feel alive and there’s no better way to physically demonstrate gratitude for health, breath and life than to run,” he summarizes. “Yes, we were ‘born to run.’ Trite but true. As for the pain, I love the way pushing myself to the absolute limit makes me feel absolutely alive. There’s something in putting one foot in front of the other ‘til my bloodwork matches that of a cadaver that calls to me. It’s the call of the wild. It keeps me primal – ugly – in touch with the magic force flowing through all life. It makes me know I’ve always got a full tank of gas, that I can take on any deal, and that whatever it is … I’m gonna push through it.
Name: Scott Waldrop
Hometown: Wake Forest, N.C.
Number of years running: 5
How many miles a week do you typically run: 60ish, I’m always tapering up or down because I race too much.
Point of pride: I stay in touch with old friends and being married to high school sweetheart Mary. I think it’s like a “credit check” of character when you have old friends.
Favorite race distance: 100 miles only because I’ve managed to understand my body and splits best at this distance. I do enjoy going longer as always learn new things about myself.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I don’t eat much before I race; just take in calories steadily while moving. Muir Energy mango lime mix has just three ingredients, it tastes good and keeps me rocking.
Favorite piece of gear: UltrAspire Alpha 4.0 vest. It’s tiny and perfect for simply holding two soft flasks but can cram enough gear into it for most situations if need be.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Sammy Hagar's "Winner Takes it All"
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” - Confucius
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
Email/personal coaching: email@example.com
My band: twistedtowerdire.com
My Herren Project / Badwater 135 Charity Page: www.scottwaldrop.org