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To Hell and Back

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On June 28, 2013, Adam Casey left his apartment in downtown San Diego, alone, and drove east on Highway 15, straight into the blistering heat of the Nevada desert. He had one goal for the day: run 50 miles.

Flanked on either side by dry, dusty grasses and brittle bushes, Highway 15 is the main artery to the brutal heart of the American West, a faded palette of khakis, olives and greys washed out by the intensity of the sun’s beating rays. Casey had signed up for an event called Running with the Devil, a 50-mile trail race that starts and ends at Lovell Canyon. The landscape is so deprived of water its dusty surface feeds only the most stubborn, gritty and strong-willed foliage—plants that know what it takes to survive.

Casey knew what it took to survive. At 27 years old, he had already spent more than two years developing the skills to survive in extreme climates and dangerous situations. He had given up on everything he knew—family, friends and a serious relationship—to enter Navy SEAL training.

Adam Casey is long and lean with a square jaw, a prominent brow and an easy grin that belies his Midwestern charm. He often runs with his hat backwards and his chest bare, blending right in with the throngs of dirt-loving, peak-bagging ultrarunners that call Boulder, Colorado, their playground.

His scars, however, tell a different story.

His chest and back bear remnants of surgeries and chafing sustained during college football and, later, military training. His torso is also draped in ribbons of Gaelic script, all quotes that pay homage to the most pivotal moments in his life: college football, Navy SEALs, Marine Corp, chemotherapy and Colorado.

His odyssey already includes heroic feats, crippling pain, unrequited love, insurmountable loss and a long tango with death. Casey, now 31, wasn’t always sure he would survive, or wanted to survive, but he was always certain of one thing: he needed to run.

Adam Casey was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and has one older sister. He played football in high school and went on to play for the University of Missouri, where he studied biology. Casey was never the fastest or the strongest on the team. In fact, he was a “walk-on,” and only played in 10 games total, always at the end of the fourth quarter. But he had grit and determination.

“I remember the day he told me he was going to walk-on to the Mizzou football team,” says Kerry Casey, Adam’s Mom. “I thought, ‘Adam, you’re so little! You’re gonna get crushed!’” Casey knew that being on the team would be an uphill battle, but he was ready to fight. “Some kids get all the breaks,” Kerry continued. “Adam doesn’t necessarily get breaks—he sets goals and he goes for it.”

In 2006, while Casey was preparing to play in a bowl game for the University of Missouri, he met a girl who changed the course of his life, and inspired him to set new goals. Bigger goals. Set aspirations that would leave a deeper mark on the world around him.

“She was just a special person,” Casey says. He is no longer in touch with the girl and has chosen to protect her identity, out of respect. But her impact runs deep. “She made me reflect on who I was and question whether I was on the same level as she. I wanted to prove that I was.”

After graduating from college, Casey set his sights on achieving the most honorable, rewarding and physically demanding goal he could possibly set for himself: becoming a U.S. Navy SEAL.

He dedicated his life to the task. Casey spent more than two years preparing for military training—first on his own, then with a private trainer—before finally getting accepted to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S). Though Casey was on track to his dream, the decision to go wasn’t easy. Casey was in a serious relationship at the time, and felt the weight of having to choose between the comfort and support of building a future with someone he loved, or giving that up to move to the other side of the country, where he knew no one, all for a dream that was not guaranteed to succeed.

“When I got the call that I had been selected [for BUD/S], I ran until I threw up,” says Casey. “That answer, of what I really wanted, was there; but I had to take away every other thought that was in my head [and get to] that primal mentality of: nothing else exists except the present moment.” It’s a tactic he learned during long, painful conditioning drills as a college football player.

“Every hard life decision I’ve made has come through a run.”

Casey moved to San Diego, California, where he ate, slept and breathed BUD/S. During his training, he sustained bruises, chafing, scars, sleep deprivation and even battled ulcerative colitis—a debilitating gastrointestinal illness that at one point left him consuming a scant 100 calories a day.

All the while he continued to run timed miles in combat boots, carry a 200-pound boat above his head with his teammates, do sit-ups on concrete, tread water wearing full combat gear and sustain the jeers, taunts and ridicule of his commanders. He sustained all of this—like everyone else on his BUD/S team—for weeks.

And then … Hell.

According to the Navy SEALS website, Hell Week consists of “5 ½ days of cold, wet, brutally difficult operational training on fewer than four hours of sleep.” Trainees are constantly in motion—running, swimming, paddling, carrying boats on their heads, lifting logs, rolling in the sand, slogging through mud, paddling boats and doing sit-ups and push-ups. It is “the toughest training in the U.S. Military,” with only 25 percent of BUD/S students making it through.

“I had given up everything I knew, I couldn’t be weak enough to quit,” Casey says.

Then came a drill called Steel Pier. BUD/S students would jump into the frigid ocean and tread water, then commanders would order the entire group of 50 to 60 students to get out. They could only exit by climbing over an inflatable raft—and they only had one minute.

“We were like rats trying to escape the sewer,” Casey said. Students had to take off an article of clothing each round before jumping back into the water.

“When we were treading water in our underwear, it was fucking dead quiet,” Casey recalls. “All the instructors were standing on the pier in front of [us], just having a conversation about how much you suck, how much they don’t want you there, saying things like, ‘I really hope this piece of shit quits,’ spraying us with a garden hose.”

After several rounds, Casey got out of the water and joined his peers for a hypothermia check. Cold, tired, emotionally depleted, he quit.

“I wasn’t good enough,” says Casey. “There’s no excuse.”

Casey was rudderless, and fell into a deep depression. Running was an important form of catharsis, and also a way to reach a level of suffering that matched the depth of his despair. Casey ran four marathons in five weeks. (He would have run five, but he was hungover and slept through the fifth.) He went on group runs through Balboa Park near his home in San Diego. It satisfied his need to be on the move. But Casey needed more.

He had never heard of an ultramarathon, until he met “the pivotal individual.” Casey never knew his name, but he remembers him clearly: mid-50s, tanned leather skin, sun-bleached hair, a seashell necklace and an old T-shirt with cut-off sleeves. Casey would see him run in Balboa Park, sometimes without shoes.

“He seemed very content,” says Casey.

The man seemed to empathize with Casey right away.

“You look like you’re hurting,” the man said. He was a trail runner and encouraged Casey to sign up for an ultramarathon, promising him that, “Every step past 26.2 is a spiritual epiphany.”

It was all Casey needed to hear.

On Highway 15, Casey was now driving into the depths of a Hell of his own creation. Two weeks prior to the Running with the Devil race, a boy-scout leader died from dehydration in a nearby canyon in 115-degree temperatures. On the day of the race, temperatures were expected to exceed 117 degrees.

The race was canceled with less than 24-hours’ notice. But Casey decided to go to Lovell Canyon anyway, and run the course. Casey’s friends Kyle and Tom, who were signed up to run it with him, backed out.

“I thought it was a terrible idea,” says Kyle. (He and Adam quit BUD/S around the same time.) “I was unnerved by the fact that it was 50 miles in the desert without aid stations or medical personnel.”

Everyone who knew what Casey was doing thought it was a bad idea, except for one.

“I understood that [quitting BUD/S] was such a tremendous loss for him, and he was still grieving. He just had to go back to Hell Week,” says Kerry Casey, Adam’s mother. “He wanted to feel the sting of tears on his cheeks and the pain in his legs. You could sense this was something he needed.”

Casey stood in the desert with nothing more than shorts, shoes, a hat and a water bottle. In between the ribbons of Gaelic script, he wrote in black Sharpie across his chest: “do not resuscitate.”

Casey explained it as a “cryptic joke” between him and Kyle. Although, years later, when Casey’s mother first saw a picture of her son in the desert, she recalled feeling taken aback, realizing for the first time “the depth of the agony, the pain, the sadness and the turmoil” he was going through.

Casey ran effortlessly for the first half of the unmarked course, sweating profusely under the hot sun. Then, around mile 30, as the heat of the day intensified, the sweat stopped. By this point, his cell phone had overheated and died, he had run out of water and he was getting delirious, wandering off the trail. His mind snapped back to the moment he quit BUD/S.

Memories ate at him as he wandered farther away from the course. Maybe you shouldn’t find water, he thought. Maybe you should just die.

Aimless, delirious, off-course, Casey wandered for minutes that seemed like hours, until, suddenly, across the dusty ground, he saw a collection of trailer homes surrounded by chain-link fences. He scanned the scene and locked his eyes on a spigot. Casey quickly refilled his water bottle, retraced his steps back to the trail and finished his “race.”

But, “I felt like I hadn’t done it right,” Casey says. “[After the run] I was staying in this shitty motel, lying in bed, cramping up so bad and kind of pissed off at this dude who told me it would be a spiritual epiphany.”

Casey’s favorite metaphor to describe the trajectory of his life involves a shovel: “Whenever I think I’ve hit rock bottom, God taps me on the shoulder, hands me a shovel, spits in my face and says, ‘Dig deeper.’”

Casey didn’t experience a spiritual epiphany in the desert.

He hadn’t dug deep enough.

I met Adam Casey in a creek last September.

He was 52 miles into his first 100K, and I was 40 miles into a 50-miler on the same course, feeling like my legs were going through a meat grinder. I walked, begrudgingly, until I approached one of three consecutive streams.

When I reached the bank, I saw a guy in a backwards hat, his torso tattooed with sentences. He was sitting in the creek, looking pretty damn content. He invited me to join. I politely refused—twice. He trotted past me in between creek crossings as I hobbled along.

“There’s a rock right here,” he said as I approached creek number three. He motioned to a lump of flowing water directly to his left. He was courteous and insistent, though I couldn’t imagine why. (Perhaps he noticed I was hurting.)

Indeed, the cold water numbed my legs to the sting of the grind. It was just what I needed.

“Ok, I’m gonna jet,” he hollered and coasted away.

He was one of those people you see in an ultra and think: Why does he look so goddamn comfortable?

“Adam has always had an iron determination,” says Aaron Polhamus, one of Casey’s best friends, whom he met during BUD/S training. (Polhamus also didn’t make it through.) “He’s in that mold of a free-spirited, strong-willed man just trying to do something in life.”

“He’s probably the most unique individual that I’ve ever helped on the way to the Navy SEALS,” says Keath Hausher, President of Shark Fitness Training and the Saint Louis Military Officer Support Foundation. “He has a great work ethic. The guy never backs down from a challenge.”

After quitting BUD/S, Casey had to go back to the drawing board and set new goals. Luckily, just a few days after Running with the Devil, Casey was accepted into the Marine Corps.

In September 2014, he graduated from IOC (Infantry Officer Course) and moved to North Carolina to begin preparations for deployment to Iraq as a marine platoon commander. He was in love with a woman back in Virginia, whom he intended to marry. He was also regularly working 18-to-20-hour days, but he continued to run in the evenings to maintain a level of fitness and mental clarity. He had new goals. And he was not going to quit—not again.

“Things were seemingly starting to turn my way,” says Casey. “And then, God tapped me on the shoulder …”

Seven weeks after graduating IOC, Casey found himself on the floor of his apartment, barely able to move. “I spent the entire weekend rolling side to side, because if I laid in one position for too long, the pressure would start to build up on my lungs and I would be out of breath,” Casey said. “I would actually be panting, like a dog, with my mouth open.”

Casey had first discovered he had ulcerative colitis before entering BUD/S, but avoided telling the military about his health issues for fear of being kicked out. The diagnosis had only caused him to double down on grit and determination.

Though it had been over a year since he quit BUD/S, the failure was still fresh in his mind. He wasn’t going to let anything stop him from being a marine.

By Monday morning, Casey’s stomach was distended. He figured it was just another debilitating symptom of colitis. He knew that flare-ups were caused by stress, and he certainly had enough of that: long hours, physical exertion and the pressure to perform. Plus, tensions were flaring up with his girlfriend.

Casey crawled into his car and eventually made it to work. But, shortly after arriving, Casey was sent to the hospital, where he was told that he was in such a dire state he probably wouldn’t have lived through the night.

He had advanced Stage-IV Burkitt’s non-Hodgkins  lymphoma, the fastest growing human tumor, which had metastasized into his lymph nodes. He was rushed to chemotherapy.

Casey lost his hair. He lost weight. The chemo made his already shaky immune system so weak he lost the ability to fight off the litany of ailments that cropped up in the wake of cancer: liver failure, shingles, MRSA, pneumonia, numerous infections. He was never able stay out of the hospital for more than two days at a time.

The marine carrying a 200-pound pack through the woods was stuck in a sterile room with white walls and an endless cacophony of beeps. Little things, like walking to the bathroom, became difficult, sometimes impossible.

“Two months prior I had been finishing infantry training … and here I am, [unable to] make it halfway to the bathroom.”

In the midst of it all, he and his girlfriend broke up. Casey didn’t recognize himself. He refused to look in the mirror, and descended into a tailspin from which he wasn’t sure he would recover.

At one point, Casey signed “do-not-resuscitate” papers. That same night, he went into shock and almost died. Part of him felt like it would have been better that way.

Throughout his life, Casey had used running to cope with pain and suffering—and now, he didn’t even have that possibility.

“When running was taken away from me because of cancer … I didn’t see any point,” says Casey. “I would fall asleep at night trying to locate this ultimate off switch, just let go of all the hurt and surrender. I wanted to die.”

He was often motionless, too weak to move, and alone with his thoughts. He had also lost hold of much of what made him happy.

“I was no longer a football player. I was no longer going to be a SEAL. I couldn’t dream about being a marine anymore,” he said. “I couldn’t day dream about anything … except running.”

Casey dreamt of trails. He’d imagine a home in the middle of the woods, away from the rest of the world, built into the side of a rock face with a stream out front. “Like a hobbit home,” he said. “And there’s this perfect, beautiful trail through the woods, and I’m winding through this trail, going at full speed, and my heart rate is so calm.”

He tried to bring himself back to that place, to the feeling of running free, in the woods, by a stream. But every time he tried to build that home for himself, there was “a violent interruption.”

“The beeping—for six months—never stopped.”

In a brief window of time away from his hospital bed, Casey spent Easter that year with his friend Kyle on the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

“[He was] barely able to walk 50 yards on the beach,” Kyle said. “It was heartbreaking to see a friend like that. [And yet] he still had that fire. He was unwilling to give up. And the fact that he came back completely … It’s like a miracle.”

In the spring of 2015, after six months of chemotherapy, Casey was finally in remission. It was great news, and yet it didn’t feel entirely celebratory. Casey was angry. He had to go back to the drawing board once again and redefine his life.

Still living in Virginia Beach, Virginia, surrounded by friends who were now working as Navy SEALS, he faced a vast emptiness where his military career had been. In order to sort through his thoughts and find a way to move forward, Casey needed to run.

Photo by Mike Thurk

“At first, I couldn’t go more than two or three driveways without just wanting to lie down and go to sleep,” says Casey. Every day, his goal was to get to the next driveway or stop sign. “Over time I was able to get back to a point where I could at least get myself exhausted and use that to deal with the depression I was going through.”

Eventually, Casey knew he had to move on. He couldn’t go back to the military to serve as an officer, so he decided to go back to school to pursue a second undergraduate degree, this time in computer science. He feels that “part of what computer science is helping me with is to feel like I’m still in the fight.”

Casey moved to Boulder last year. Every weekend, he’s in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees, running along streams and down trails, chasing his dreams—and, for the first time, facing his pain.

Since moving to Boulder, Casey has run a 24-hour race, completed his first 100K and—almost exactly three years after being diagnosed with cancer—ran 50 miles through the desert (this time in Utah).

Casey has big plans for his running future, including attempting his first 100-miler and tackling the Cordillera Blanca Traverse, which covers 252 miles with 23 mountain passes between 14,000 and 17,500 feet.

He also has plans for a sixth ribbon of Gaelic text. He’s not sure what it will say, but it will probably have something to do with pain. “Maybe, ‘some pain you need to accept and some pain you shouldn’t run away from’… something like that.” But he knows exactly what the tattoo will pay homage to: running.

Claire Walla writes and runs in Los Angeles.

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