Even though they occur on the same day every year, the Shut-In Trail Race and the Green Race couldn’t be more different.
One is a grueling three-hour uphill trail run over rugged and spectacular terrain; the other is an anaerobic sprint into the bowels of the earth on a whitewater maelstrom. Both are marquee events with over 20 years of history that attract the top athletes in their sports, but due to their intensity and required skill and fitness, they have always been mutually exclusive.
But there’s a first time for everything.
Jack Ditty is an ER doctor at Haywood Regional Hospital in Waynesville, N.C. You wouldn’t know it from his unassuming frame and humble attempts to deflect attention, but Ditty is also one of the most impressive athletes in the Appalachians. He isn’t a pro athlete, and he doesn’t have a laundry list of sponsors, but he does possess an uncanny ability to balance life’s priorities. Outside of his work in the ER, Jack is a husband, a father, and a formidable middle distance competitor in running, cycling, and kayaking (and often in combination). He has won the Russell Fork Baddlun four times, Captain Thurmond’s Challenge twice, and the Green River Games Silverback twice. He organized the classic Lord of the Fork kayak race for ten years, and also founded and directed the Appalachian Wilderness Medicine Conference immediately after his residency at WVU.
And most recently, Jack became the first person to successfully finish the Shut-In 17.8-Mile Trail Race and the Green Race on the same day.
“You have to run fast just to make it to the Green Race,” says Ditty. “At the starting line of Shut-In, there is no fluff… every single person is a very serious athlete. I have to say though, during the last three-quarters of the run, my mind was definitely not on Shut-In. I was thinking about Gorilla.”
After finishing Shut-In with a strong time of 3:05:50 (27th out of 217), he hopped in the car and drove 45 minutes to the Green River Narrows put-in. After a half-mile jog down to his stashed boat, Ditty reached the starting line with seven minutes to spare before his start time. Everything was happening too quickly to get nervous. Four minutes after starting, he was careening through a 1,000-person natural amphitheater in the race’s crux section, and another minute and a half later he came skipping over the finish line. “It was spectacular at the bottom—just complete relaxation and satisfaction,” recounts a smiling Ditty.
But he immediately passes credit to his family. “The number one reason that any of this works is because I have an understanding and supportive wife. Charlotte and I have dissimilar interests, but I think that is good. She allows me to get away and do my own thing—and then I am more present at home.” Ditty also points to his parents for their influence and encouragement to write down and follow through on goals from a young age.
The road to being an ER doctor hasn’t been an easy one, and has of course required sacrifices. As an undergraduate at University of Kentucky, it was challenging to give up time outdoors in the name of education.
“I tried to go with the life choices that had the most flexibility, rather than those with the most immediate satisfaction,” he says. Ditty peaked at a few 120-hour workweeks during his residency and was forced to prioritize ruthlessly.
“I found myself consciously cutting out anything extraneous. I was and still am disconnected from spectator sports and television, and my social life took a big hit at the time.”
Through it all, Ditty spent as much time as possible with Charlotte, and developed into an elite athlete during his hilly bike rides to and from work.
Today, Jack is 40 years old, and spends a lot of time with his son, Sawyer. “The smallest experiences have changed when you have them through your child’s eyes. I love every second of teaching him how to play chess, throw a baseball, or read trail signs on a hike.”
Ditty also recognizes the dangers of spreading yourself too thin. “You have to be focused, proficient, and present at your job. Cutting that corner to pursue other interests is not really acceptable to make the ‘balance’ work.” He also notes that living this lifestyle means accepting that he will never be the best at any one sport.
But in the end, each aspect of life recharges him for the others, and somehow everything fits together. Whether you run into Ditty during a heinous climb at Shut-In, in the emergency room, or at the neighborhood playground, you’ll find him completely in the present moment, committed to being the best athlete, doctor, and father that he can possibly be.