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My brother the Iron Man

My younger brother, Tommy Rivers, is the kind of guy endurance sports were made for.  He is strong, determined, and resolute.  He is also humble, kind, and compassionate.  He loves people and they love him. From the time we were little kids he always wanted to do whatever I did, but despite my additional two years of experience he could always see me do it and then do it better. It didn't matter if it was catching snakes and lizards, riding bikes, learning languages, or winning the hearts of girls--he always exceeded my abilities.

Me & my brother spent most of our childhood exploring the world on bikes.
We grew up in a home where we were expected to spend most of our time outside. Before running became something we did for sport, pedestrianism was already a way of life. Our bikes were the means of accessing vast fields to explore and our feet helped us allude police and property owners when we found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Tommy, our dad, Kim, and I backpacking through Southern Utah about the time we both started running.
When I first started running competitively in 8th grade, Tommy attended some of my meets.  At the final meet of the season he decided to jump in at the start.  Before the start, he asked me what he should do. Given that it was usually a big deal for me to cover the 3K distance without walking, I simply said,  "Run easy and then when you see the finish start trying."

Tommy Rivers running Middle School Cross Country
I was having the race of my life, beating guys I had never beaten.  I was in position to place 3rd or 4th on my team.  My performance would be the perfect way to cap off my first season of cross country.  As I approached the finish line I heard someone come up next to me.  I tried to surge, but couldn't hold him off.  Then Tommy asked, "Hey, Jake, do you think I should start trying now?  I can see the finish line."  I had to tell him to hold back just so that I could save face.  That middle school race pretty well typifies how life has been in the shadow of my little brother.

Qualifying for our first Oregon State Cross Country Meet
When I was a senior in high school, Tommy was a freshman and we were able to run on the same team.  Before that year I had never qualified for the state cross country meet.  Thanks to him and some of the other tough underclassmen, our team qualified for the Oregon State Cross Country and earned the school's first state trophy in several years.  Tommy was trampled at the start and kicked in the back of the head when he went down again 150 meters into the race, but he was all smiles when he finished.

Photo from the East Oregonian, November 1999
That spring I tried to build on the momentum from cross country season and had begun to think I might be able to run in college.  Upon crossing the finish line after a BIG PR in the 3,000m, I turned around to see my little brother finish a step behind me.

Racing on the track as a Senior and Freshman in High School
After I graduated, I walked onto one of the top junior college teams in the country. When I returned for winter break after our team had won the NJCAA Cross Country Championships for the second year in a row, Tommy was already gearing up for track and asked me to run a 5K time trial with him.  I was in the best shape of my life, so figured it would be fun to make him work.

Lead pack at the NJCAA Cross Country Championships
Tommy warmed up with dumbells in his hands and then jumped rope to get his legs ready.  He pulled away early which didn't make sense because I was on PR pace.  He eventually stopped and waited for me about a block from the finish.  At the time he had about 20 seconds on me.  We crossed the line in 15:20.  He was a sophomore in high school.

On a weekend when we didn't have a meet, some of my teammates came home with me to visit.  As a junior in high school, Tommy put us all to shame as he bounded effortlessly through the sage and volcanic soil overlooking the Columbia River on a 12 mile run.  A few weeks later my teammates and I won the school's third consecutive NJCAA National Cross Country team title.

Tommy knew about barefoot running and the Tarahumara before Chris McDougall had ever heard of Caballo Blanco.  As little boys from the Southwest, our childhood dream had been to go to Copper Canyon and run with the Tarahumara long before it was cool to go to Copper Canyon.  Then when we were in high school, we cooled down with Bernard Lagat after an indoor meet and he invited us to go to Kenya and train with him so we weren't sure which to do.

Unfortunately, the footwear revolution that accompanied Born to Run hadn't happened yet, so when Tommy heard it was good to run barefoot he did a lot of barefoot running.  Eventually his feet and legs broke.  He immediately transferred his passion for excellence into cycling and swimming.

Tommy on his steel frame steed en route to Montana for a Running Camp
We didn't have a lot of money, but he used the money he earned on his paper route to buy an old steel frame Schwinn road bike and began riding with the local bike group.  After a few weeks, he jumped into some small cycling races.  I only attended a few and didn't like the fact that outcomes had a lot more to do with how much someone invested in their equipment than on their actual ability. Tommy didn't get caught up in that.  Early in one race we were riding together and a group of middle-aged cyclists with bikes worth more than our family's car caught and tried to pass us. One of them sneered at us and our bikes and commented on how he had owned the same blue bike 20 years before further mocking the antiquated wheel set and components.  Rather than taking offense as I had and lashing out as I wanted to, Tommy simply accelerated and dropped us all, beating us by several minutes.

After years living in Panama and Brazil as service missionaries, we figured we needed to live in equatorial climates so we continued our university studies in Hawaii.  It was there that we fell in love with the trails and running so long that we had to search for sustenance in trees.  Mango, papaya, passion fruit, and guava really aren't bad options when you need a pick-me-up.

BYU Hawaii's Cross Country Team - 2006
I'd usually train year-round because that is just who I am.  Tommy, on the other hand, surfed, played music, kissed girls, spent the summers in the desert with troubled youth, or in Mexico surfing and vagabonding.  He'd usually gain twenty pounds in the off season, but that didn't keep him from showing up at the end of the season ready to take down anyone that stood in his way.

Since our college didn't have a track team, we were only permitted to meet as a team every few weeks in the Spring.  We'd have periodical 5K time trials just to check our fitness and assure we were still scholarship worthy.  I took these seriously and usually jumped into other road races and track meets to sharpen my speed.  Tommy (at that point he started going by his middle name, Rivers, because we had a couple of other guys named Tommy on our team), on the other hand, usually showed up about 30 seconds before the time trial barefoot, on a long board, with a trucker hat and a flannel shirt (well before it was hip to wear trucker hats and flannel shirts).

Putting on a little concert in the back of his van.
Despite little warm-up, by about mile 2.5 Tommy would be right on my shoulder and recite a line from one of his favorite movies (Braveheart, First Knight, Toy Story, or Dumb and Dumber) and make me laugh so hard I couldn't breathe. . . and then he would proceed to win the thing.  Needless to say, this infuriated me, but somehow brought a great sense of pride knowing that my brother was capable of such feats.  His gift as an audio savant is not only good for memorizing entire movies and country songs, but it has also helped him become fluent in several languages which has ultimately enabled him to learn from and work with many people around the world.

The start of one of many local cross country meets in Hawaii.
While still in college, Tommy began to dabble in multi-sport events.  Sometimes that simply meant riding his bike across the Island to run in a local road race. He offically debuted at a local duathlon (run-swim-run) in Tri-Cities, Washington where some semi-pro triathletes showed up ready to kick off their summer seasons. Despite their sleek sponsor clad spandex kits and clean shaven bodies, a long haired, bearded guy in full split shorts and trail shoes was the first into the water, the first out of the water, and the first to the finish by minutes. This whet his appetite for future multi-sport events, but somehow he never became the stereotypcial triathlete.  He never got caught up in quantifying and analyzing his watts, power output, or mileage.  To this day he still doesn't own a GPS watch and doesn't count miles.  He trains by feel.  Rather than fancy sports drinks and bars he usually makes his own from scratch.

After a while he started wearing pretty Spandex Suits as well
I got married and started a family sooner than either of us had anticipated, so our plans of moving to Copper Canyon and Kenya never materialized.  When he found out someone had taken his place as my sidekick he was hurt, but that didn't keep him from finding another group of incredible mountain runners to learn from in Costa Rica. While living there for a year, he won most of the road races in the capital city of San Jose, but struggled in the mountains against campesinos and porteros with no road running credentials

A regular top finisher in Costa Rica's road races
He didn't understand how they did what they did in the mountains so he moved to a village at the base of the trailhead to the highest peak in Costa Rica--Mt. Chirripo--and began working with them. He learned from coffee farmers who moonlighted as porters the value of training specificity, porting tourists' belongings from 6,500ft to 12,500ft in the middle of the night and then running back down each morning.  Over the course of two months of no structured running workouts and simply packing 60 extra pounds up and down a mountain night after night he learned that one could become quite adept on the trails. (Read more about his experience here).

Even the monkeys and mangy dogs feared him, but the people loved him.
I went to visit him while he was finishing up his stint in Costa Rica, and we found ourselves in charge of the base camp for a couple of days and nights atop Mt. Chirripo.  Usually, the hikers/campers went to sleep when the sun went down, but when we were in charge we partied into the night.  Ever the entertainer, Tommy played and sang music in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French for the international guests.

On our way down the mountain in a tropical rain storm, Tommy slipped and twisted his ankle and lay smashed beneath his 60 pound pack.  He was wrapped in an oversized garbage bag to protect his pack from getting wet, so getting him up with a bum ankle and dead weight on his back was no small order.  We eventually made it back, but it appeared that his attempt at breaking his former time on the course would not happen.

Summiting Mt. Chirripo
On the last day we were there we made the ascent and descent from San Gerardo to Mt. Chirripo and back.  I had just finished on the heels of a strong field of East Africans at the Rock & Roll Seattle Marathon and felt like I was in pretty good shape.  I couldn't even hang on the ascent so I went as far as I could and started descending when I saw him again on his way down.  He finished thirty minutes faster than his previous time months earlier.  He gained a greater appreciation for altitude training and the benefits of a pedestrian lifestyle.

A local favorite at road races, but when he got to the mountains the porters exploited his weaknesses.
Tommy's experience porting in Costa Rica inspired him to move to Flagstaff, Arizona.  He knew that to maximize his potential as an endurance athlete he needed to live and train at altitude.  After visiting him a couple of times, I came to the same conclusion.

Training at 12,000 ft on my first visit to Flagstaff. Photo Tommy Rivers Puzey
Tommy is currently pursuing a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree and I'm working toward a PhD in Anthropology.  When we aren't in school, coaching, or playing with our kids we try to get together and train in the mountains.

Training together on Mt. Elden Lookout Rd. Photo by Anna Lee Landin/
Or the Canyon...

Dropping into the Grand Canyon in the Spring. Photo by Tommy Rivers
After finishing his first year of clinicals, Tommy accompanied the Iron Cowboy James Lawrence for a couple of weeks as he completed 50 Ironman distance triathlons in 50 States in 50 consecutive days.  Tommy chronicled his experiences here.

Tommy riding with Iron Cowboy James Lawrence on day 7/50 in Flagstaff, AZ. Photo by Nathan Kinder
Next week we're teaming up to do a race we have dreamed of doing for years, the Trans Rockies Run - a six day, 120 mile team stage race through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  I can't think of another person I'd rather share the miles with than my brother the Iron Man.

Trailer to a documentary by Paul Nelson Film & Photography about our Trans Rockies experience


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