(Originally published 3/31/2016 on the Human Potential web site, edited 3/31/2017)
There are possibly hundreds of metaphors comparing running to life. And anyone who has run long enough (either in years or distance) will tell you that many of them are true.
My favorite metaphor is about peaks and valleys. You’ve all heard it. Many of you have said it. In life, and in running, there are highs and lows. In trail running, sometimes those can be literal as well as figurative. The highs are celebrated. The lows are… Decidedly not celebrated. (With a few exceptions, like literal named canyons and geographical low points.)
In life, and in running, the low points are viewed as weakness. Our culture doesn’t deal well with weakness. Weakness is buried and made to feel shame. Weakness is bad and must be purged from the body, spirit and soul as quickly as possible.
But what if that’s wrong? Sure, we all love to celebrate the highs. We get together and party. We take summit photos. We take victory laps. The summits are easy to love.
The summits are not where champions are made.
Champions are made in the valleys. Champions are made in the lows. Champions are forged out of weakness. Champions are the ones that claw their way up from the depths to the next summit.
There were two recent events in my life that have sparked this monologue. The first, we probably won’t get into in a public forum. The second, however, was the HPRS staff meeting where all (OK, most) the ambassadors for 2016 were meeting to go over the plans for the year. And Sherpa John is using me as an example.
“And just who is this guy? Who is he to think he can run 100 miles?”
If you’ve been around John long enough, you’ve heard him start things off with those words before. But for the first time in my fairly short relationship with John, he was talking about me. There were more words, but he concluded:
“When I saw him coming down that hill about two miles from the finish line, he was SMILING!”
And that’s when I realized John had just answered his own questions, and many of mine as well. You ever walk into a situation feeling way under gunned? That was me walking into that room of HPRS ambassadors. I had met most of them at least once before. I had put down some serious miles with several of them. Many of them have been featured in articles, and blog posts. And here I was. An ultra running noob whose only real claim to fame is being too stupid to quit.
And that’s just it. I kept throwing myself into the valleys of running. And I kept clawing my way back out. And I had learned to do it with grace.
I’ve seen pictures from Run Rabbit Run 2015. I was smiling. I was smiling nearly the whole time. Now to be fair, by the time I saw John on that last descent, I had been awake for well over 30 hours and traveled over 100 miles by foot. That smile could have been a grimace of pain. Or I could have been delirious, which is more likely. This was the section of the course where you could have your whole crew take a gondola ride up and “pace” you down the hill. And the crew and I were laughing, joking, talking, trying real hard not to think about the valley I had just climbed out of or the valley I was descending into. (Literal and figurative, in both cases.) In fact, I had just finished twerking to help amuse myself and my crew. We were riding the high.
But the valleys. The valleys are what define who we are. How we react when things don’t go as planned, how we deal with adversity, bad weather, unexpected hills, getting lost, a course longer than advertised… How we react to the curve balls thrown by life is what defines our character and shapes our moral compass.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming to be perfect. I’m not saying that sometimes we don’t hit the wall at mile 15 of a 19 mile training run and just sit down on a rock and cry for 10 minutes. It’s natural to be upset when the leader of the group mis-reads the map or misses a turn and takes everyone up to a mountain peak that is an extra thousand feet of climbing and a few extra miles. It’s fine to be down. It’s fine to be rolling around in the darkness trying to figure out which way is up. But when you’re there, take a moment to think about how you are reacting. When the weather turns unexpectedly hot, and you can’t keep food down at the half way point of a 50 miler, do you throw in the towel? Do you mope and trudge through it, entertaining the thoughts of dropping the whole time (or even succumb)? Or do you realize you can still take the Tailwind, and after you push through this 10k lower loop, you can start climbing back to 10,000 feet where it’s nice and cool?
What do you do when you wake up on race morning with severe intestinal instabilities? Do you go back to bed? Do you show up, get your shirt, and not run? You’re sick. No one will judge you for not running. Or do you try to hydrate and fuel as much as possible, and push your way through the 50k as best you can?
When it’s three in the morning, and you’re 70+ miles in, and you stub your toe for the third time that race on a (seemingly) fast downhill and you can feel the blister forming, what do you do? Do you get to the next aid and call it done? It’s cold. It’s late. You’re injured. No one would judge you for dropping. Or do you ponder the situation over a cup of broth and work your way back up to your crew for a change of socks and a look at the damage? When you see the sixth toe that is the blister, and your heart drops, how do you rally? I have to confess. This one nearly ended me. If I had not had a crew brave enough to lance that thing, my race would have been over. I wouldn’t have put a shoe back on.
I’m sure we’ll get to the importance of a solid crew later, but watching these people (some strangers along just to help!) dig in and patch me up was enough to put a boot in my ass. If they were willing to tear me apart and tape me back together, I was willing to see exactly how far I could go.
Reading this many will think of it as bragging. John Wayne machismo with running shoes. And I can see how that perception can be there. But these are only four examples from two thousand+ miles of training and racing over 13 months. And these are just a small sample of all the different ways life can go wrong and drop you into a low spot.
If you run long enough (in distance, or in years) you will come upon situations similar to these. And sometimes you will make the “smart” or “safe” choice and throw in the towel. There was a time in my life where I would have scoffed at such weakness. But having thrown myself into the valleys as often as I have, I totally get it. Even I don’t always find a way to rise from the ashes. But when it counts, when in the dark depths of the valley, I make the “foolish” choice. I make the “brave” choice. I make the “bold” choice. I crawl around on the valley floor to see if that’s really the bottom. I risk falling deeper. And sometimes, I find I’m not at the bottom. But sometimes, sometimes, I find just enough to start to pull myself up.
In running, and in life, I urge you take a moment and think. When you’re done, when everyone thinks you should throw in the towel, (and there is a good time to do that!) can you be bold enough keep going just a little longer? To paraphrase my ex-wife, during a discussion that had NOTHING to do about running, “If you quit now, that’s it. You’re done. Or you can try a little more. Stick with it just a little longer. And if it doesn’t work, you can always quit later.”
And maybe you just can’t stick it out any more. But you never know until you try. And in that trying, that’s where you figure out just who you are and what you’re made of.
Keep trying. Keep training. You can always quit later.
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