The conditions on Mount Pisgah on New Year’s Eve were, well, less than ideal.
“The weather was pretty horrible for the first four hours,” recounted Jesse Holden, of St. Johnsbury, on Monday, Jan. 10. “It was raining a bit when I started [around 3 p.m.] and, during the first couple of laps, there were 20-minute downpours where I’d get completely soaked … everything I was wearing.”
In fact, the weather was so bad that Holden eventually abandoned his original plan of running the almost nine miles from Mount Pisgah’s South Trail parking lot over the 2,785-foot peak to the North Trailhead and back.
“I got so wet and cold from getting poured on, and I knew that I’d end up in a bad place if I was soaked and by myself throughout the night,” the Northeast Kingdom born-and-raised teacher and endurance athlete said.
Instead, Holden stayed closer to his base camp at the South Trailhead, spending only about four miles away at a time — up to the top of Pisgah and then right back down to change wet clothes and shoes and warm himself by the portable fire pit.
At first, Holden thought the safer choice would be boring — but found it wasn’t due to the changing snow conditions.
“I literally had to stay on my toes throughout the whole 24 hours because it changed from pretty solid footing to horrendous sloppy snow, basically running down a river,” he said. “So that kept my mind going.”
Why was Holden so dedicated to running up and down Mount Pisgah from 3 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2021, to 3 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2022?
Well, it was a 24-hour personal endurance challenge doubling as a fundraiser and awareness-raiser for the St. Johnsbury-based nonprofit Umbrella — which works to end gender-based violence throughout the Northeast Kingdom.
Last year, Holden held his first personal endurance challenge and fundraiser for Umbrella, raising $6,000 and managing about 33 miles and 13,200-feet of elevation gain in 12 hours.
This year — despite the uncooperative weather — Holden managed a total of 48.5 miles and a total elevation gain of around 18,200 feet in 24 hours.
As of press time Tuesday evening, the GoFundMe for Holden’s “Rise Above Run” has raised $7,000 — not counting the many cash donations he received during his run. In addition, over the past month and a half that Holden prepared for the endurance challenge, he made a concerted effort to engage in conversations with folks across the state and wider region regarding healthy masculinity, mental health and toxic masculinity — all topics Holden has worked to combat personally.
“I think the biggest thing I learned is that there’s a lot of people at least willing to engage in the conversation — if somebody else starts it,” he said. “But there’s not a lot of space for the conversation [about healthy masculinity] to be had. Some of the next steps, for me, are thinking about how I can continually provide the space to have the conversation and initiate it.”
Holden said that the recently-begun semester at St. Johnsbury Academy, where he serves as a teacher, coach and dorm parent, would likely be difficult due to the ongoing pandemic.
“That said, I’m going to continue having the conversation when it presents itself [with students,]” he said. “And hopefully through different events and fundraisers that I’m helping put on.”
On Feb. 12, 2022, Holden and the Lyndon Outing Club are hosting an “Uphill Bonanza Part Deux” — a six-hour ski touring and snowshoeing event benefiting the outing club. In Fall 2022, he is planning to host a trail running event in Newark — his hometown.
“I think these events and fundraisers are really nice spots for this conversation to continue,” Holden said. “They are places that have a diverse group — athletes and everyday people — coming together.”
Holden also recently became the Northeast Trail Running Ambassador for Salomon — a France-based outdoor sports equipment company.
“It’s funny to even say this, because I don’t love talking about myself … but I kind of got sponsored by Salomon, which is pretty sweet,” he said. “It’ll just help out with all the stuff I’m trying to do … with events, with this idea of bringing the broader community together and trying to be a positive role model, which I hope to be always. Plus, Salomon is a company that’s really taken it upon themselves to adhere to inclusivity and diversity initiatives, which is really great.”
Most importantly, however, Holden wishes to thank all of those who donated to his “Rise Above Run” fundraiser and to those who showed up — family, friends, acquaintances and strangers — on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Westmore to give him a high-five or run or hike a lap or two.
“I only knew of a couple of people that were for sure going to be there going into the event,” he said. “My friend Kris [Pieper] from Littleton and my friend Chris [Gagnon] from East Burke started with me and stayed for a while and, of course, Kerra was there a lot of the time.”
“But I didn’t know about some of the people who were coming until they showed up,” Holden recounted. “At 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day I got a text from this woman who had connected with me on Instagram to tell me she loved what I was doing. She was like, ‘hey, my partner just got done with his snow-making job at Bretton Woods; we’re going to be there at 4 a.m.’ And then, at 4 o’clock, there was a group of five people that came and stayed with me for a couple of hours.”
“Later that morning, there was just this stream of people that came in throughout the day … it was incredible,” he said. “I want to say at least 20 people came, including multiple people from Umbrella. My friend from high school’s parents were up visiting and came.”
“There was a whole host of people there at the end, way more than I had anticipated … it made me feel great and so supported by the whole community,” Holden said. “Regardless of the outcome of the fundraiser, the way the whole community came together and how many people heard about it and the way the word got out [about healthy masculinity] this year … it was just incredible.”
One man who showed up and accompanied Holden through part of his run was a figure from last year that Holden only knew as “Santa.” In 2020, Holden was heading for the summit when he ran into another hiker who came out to find him and donate $60 cash.
“I asked him what his name was and he said, ‘you can just call me Santa,’ and then he headed on his way,” Holden recounted after the 12-hour endurance challenge in December 2020. “I literally almost started crying … a tear nearly came out. But I thought, ‘I can’t focus on crying and use too much energy.’”
It turns out that Holden got one detail of that story wrong … the man’s chosen pseudonym.
“He was there at like 2:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve,” Holden recounted on Monday afternoon. “I recognized him immediately and he came up to me and first told me how I needed to make sure that I got it right — his name is Saint Nick, not Santa Claus.”
“He started with me and hiked up and over Mount Pisgah into the night; he’s recently retired and lives in the area,” Holden said. “Last year, when I first did this, he was just getting into hiking … now he hikes every day.”
Holden wasn’t with Saint Nick for his whole lap of the trail, but Saint Nick’s handiwork kept him company later in the night, during the about four hours that Holden didn’t have any human company.
“When I was running down after midnight I saw something, a snowman, on the side of the trail,” Holden recounted. “Then I went back later and looked at the writing in the snow nearby … it said ‘Saint Nick was here.’”
“He also came again at the end, when I finished on New Year’s Day and said, “Congratulations,” and gave me his number,” Holden said. “He had gotten donations from random people … it was really cool that he got so into it.”
After Holden finished his personal 24-hour challenge, he was back out running a few days later.
“I was pretty much recovered the next day … I went to the gym and rode a bike for a half-hour,” he said. “I’m a big believer in active recovery, in the sauna and cold-water immersion, in sleep and nutrition.”
Holden said that he really wants to thank everyone for all of their support — big or small. In addition, he said that if anyone ever has any questions about running, events or healthy masculinity, to feel free to get in touch with him via Instagram message @jesseholdenmtns or via email to email@example.com.
Holden’s GoFundMe can be found at gofundme.com/f/rise-above-run. It will close in the next week after final donations trickle in.
“Thank you, Jesse,” Umbrella commented on Holden’s Instagram wrap-up post. “We are so grateful for all that you have accomplished and shared. Your efforts mean so much to us!”