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Ultra Running Matters

ultra running matters blog post

Ultra Running Matters

If you like the deep concepts and thoughts of my ultra running blog posts, you might like to read the short, fantastical novels I’ve written. Tap here to check them out. There’s a couple affiliate links on this post. If you use them, Wicked Trail Running might earn a small commission.

I often wonder what things in life really matter. 

Work, profit, and accumulation seem so frivolous and wasteful at times. 

Technology is driving creativity and intellect to extinction. 

Reason and discussion are dead where most people engage in them—online. 

Abundant curiosity has been replaced by rampant attention-seeking. 

Patience is a rare commodity in such a have-it-my-way society. 

It is a truly special person that can reject it all: wasteful accumulation, technological obsession, online diatribe, the dopamine faucets that are social media, and ultimate and final preference of conditions. 

Who is that person? 

Can we ask them what things in life really matter? 

Can you and I be that person? 

I’m afraid of where many of us are, and what we’re not looking at: the void of insignificance summed up above. That’s what those modern illnesses point us to: a void of insignificance. 

You and I are in danger of being completely insignificant, if we allow our lives to revolve around all of those things (or any of those things). It is a dreary life whose surface-level desires and achievements are blasted on social media, who seeks a dopamine rush by work, profit, and accumulation. It is hardly a life at all whose curiosity and patience are rarely pondered and appreciated, engaged. 

There is something special about depth, private achievement, curiosity, creativity, and patience. 

I believe ultra runners are special, too. 

But can even an ultra marathon runner—a human who has leaned into the thorny hug of discomfort and fatigue—become un-special? 

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I’m thinking too hard about specialness. 

I’ve written before (and it’s one of my favorite Wicked Trail quotes): “You are not special. Earn it.” But I’m talking about a different kind of special. Rather than deserving and entitled to experience something, I mean special as in worth emulation. 

In that case, I think ultra runners are special. They are worth emulation. Anyone can benefit from that thorny, painful hug of discomfort and fatigue. Ultra running is adventuring up metaphorical mountains, curiosity about our capabilities inside fatigue and discomfort, and rejecting the easy death of unlimited comfort. It is nature, community, and effort. It is an example. It is a “silent campaign of long miles, heavy reps, and patience in discomfort.” 

There is little profit and accumulation in ultra running. We abandon technology at the starting line (except maybe my favorite watch) in favor of rugged adventure. We have real discussions with ourselves and other runners. We dispel reason and take a few more steps, even when the night is thick and hopeless. We’re purely curious and perfectly patient. 

Ultra runners are that special person. 

I believe it. 

It’s why I still crave these races, these adventures, that fatigue. 

Why else would I volunteer to run for hours and hours and hours? Miles and miles and miles? 

Okay. 

So ultra runners are worth emulation. 

Let’s keep it that way. 

You and me. 

Let’s not waste our lives for work, profit, and accumulation of physical goods. Let’s not obsess and become possessed by technology. Let’s keep the real conversations—perhaps the heated, spirited ones—for when we meet in person (let’s look each other in the eyes). Don’t seek attention; feed curiosity (and I think seeking attention dampens one’s curiosity). Let’s make patience popular. 

Isn’t that ultra running? 

Isn’t that why we run these races? 

So that we can look at ourselves in the mirror and know we are alive? 

Can I say that I am alive? 

I know there are people I want to be like. And so as I grow older, I want others to want to be like me. Call it vanity, call it pride, call it haughty. 

I call it pursuing what really matters. 

Here’s what I think matters, based on the intangible gifts ultra running has given me: patience, curiosity, creativity, and extremes. I think we should practice waiting, crave exploration and novelty, express ourselves onto the world, and go as far as we can down the path we choose. 

That’s as neatly as I can package this box, this treasure chest in my mind from running distances up to 100 miles. 

I think we should all open the blinds, let the sun in, and lay our intangible treasures out. Let’s leave them somewhere we can access them every single day. Let’s not forget to be special individuals, individuals worth imitating. 

We’ve certainly taken more than a few painful steps in the right direction. 

But the easy, mindless world wants to bury us in deep, suffocating mud. 

Tattoo your favorite Wicked Trail quote on your spirit and never let your life become insignificant. 

That’s ultra running, and I think it really matters. 

Stay on it. 

If you like the deep concepts and thoughts of my ultra running blog posts, you might like to read the short, fantastical novels I’ve written. Tap here to check them out. There’s a couple affiliate links on this post. If you use them, Wicked Trail Running might earn a small commission.

You might also like…

55 Ultra Running Quotes you need to read
Ultra running poems
Our most-popular hat
My original trail running and hiking poems featured on PineTreePoet

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Discomfort Grants Wishes

discomfort grants wishes wicked trail

Discomfort Grants Wishes

If you like the deep concepts and thoughts of my ultra running blog posts, you might like to read the short, fantastical novels I’ve written. Tap here to check them out. There’s a couple affiliate links on this post. If you use them, Wicked Trail Running might earn a small commission.

“Discomfort grants wishes, but you have to tell it what you want every single day.”

I find it hard lately to expand on the short reflections I write about ultra running, discomfort, fatigue, and adventure. The words are so simple and direct, but wide open to personal meditation, that I want to leave them as they are.

In years past, I wanted to tell followers of Wicked Trail—you readers of this blog—what I thought. Now I want to tell you what I think about.

It’s a change I’m glad for.

Short, simple, punctual words.

Words that are as broad as a lifetime, but as specific as mile 75 of 100 (the sun has been set for some time; my knees and hip flexors and big toes hurt; I’m tired and nauseous…).

Perhaps these short musings (of which Wicked Trail’s Instagram followers must one day tire) are born of my modern, shortening attention span. Maybe they’re a little lazy of me. Maybe they’re just as simple as ultra running: each short poem a single step on my own journey toward enlightenment via fatigue and discomfort.

And fatigue and discomfort are noble guides, worthy friends.

Discomfort is special to me.

It has a lot of talents.

It lacks nothing but comfort.

I train jiu jitsu and today, as a higher belt held me in an uncomfortable position, he acknowledged my calm breathing and lack of panic. “Good,” he said. “It’s just discomfort.”

(If only he knew I was wearing this shirt under my gi).

The word discomfort is simple and profound, like ultra running. There’re thousands of hours of wisdom just in the first letter, and woe to the man or woman who goes farther than that. That person is bound to have a bad time.

But aren’t we all bound to have a bad time?

Tied, chained, and captive to distress and anxiety, the toils of mortality.

But escape—freedom—lies in the dark cave in which you are a prisoner. You see, in that cave there is a dusty genie’s lamp. It’s tucked away in a corner, few people think to even look for it.

But if you find it and give it a little rub, Discomfort will spring forth!

And what does discomfort look like? Ghastly? Monstrous?

What does it say?

Discomfort does speak, after all.

Haven’t you heard it, while training and on race day?

“What do you want?”

That’s exactly what it says: “What do you want?”

Discomfort grants wishes, but you must tell it what you want every single day.

But discomfort is not easily beheld.

Every single day you must look for that lamp and tell discomfort what you want. It’s a reflection worth more than every motivational speech on YouTube and every self-help book in Barnes and Noble (even David Goggins’ latest book).

You can shout your desires from every rooftop, plaster them all over social media, you can tell your friends and family…but none of those ears can turn your ambitions to reality.

No shooting star, penny tossed in a fountain, or blown dandelion will make your wishes come true.

You need to find discomfort and—in the smallest moments of fatigue and pain—tell it what you want.

“I want to be free from _____________.”

“I want to be great at ______________.”

“I want to inspire __________________.”

“I want to ________________________.”

“I want…”

You know what discomfort—that premonition pouring from our little dusty lamp—will say?

Think about it…

I don’t want to give away all my thoughts.

Maybe it’s my modern attention span. Maybe it’s laziness. Maybe I’m still thinking about it, another step on my own journey.

Discomfort
grants wishes
but you have to tell it
what you want
Every
single
day.

Acknowledge mortality. Fumble around for that little lamp.

Be quiet. Discomfort is about to speak.

If you like the deep concepts and thoughts of my ultra running blog posts, you might like to read the short, fantastical novels I’ve written. Tap here to check them out. There’s a couple affiliate links on this post. If you use them, Wicked Trail Running might earn a small commission.

You might also like…

55 Ultra Running Quotes you need to read
Ultra running poems
Our most-popular hat
My original trail running and hiking poems featured on PineTreePoet

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Dukkha: Ultra Running Philosophy

dukkha ultra running philosophy

Dukkha: Sorrow, Suffering

Written by Julie Tertin. Julie is an ultra marathon runner who has raced (and won) ultra marathon distances 200 miles and beyond. You can connect with her at liveultrarunning.com or follow her on Instagram @live.ultra.

I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to be honest. I want to hear the story about a time you willingly–or unwillingly–suffered.

The suffering of discipline
The suffering of loss
The suffering of failure
The suffering of hurt
The suffering of grudge
The suffering of ego
The suffering of loneliness
The suffering of addiction
The suffering of regret
The suffering of inadequacy
The suffering of illness
The suffering of demographic

Reading this sparks recognition in your neurons because you are human. You can relate to this. Suffering floods our lives from both internal and external fountains. Remember the Buddha’s first teaching: life is dukkha, or aimless suffering. Learning to understand and interact with the suffering in my life opened my peripheral understanding of the world. It also tangibly applies to ultrarunning. I want to challenge your understanding of suffering.

The etymology of the verb to suffer suggests three meanings:

To experience.

At mile 41, when we realize we have 100k to go and our knee is tender and angry, we begin to enter the experience of what it means to suffer. At mile 76, when our vision slides all over the trail and we are moving slowly and stiffly up our demon mountains, we hurt, we are exhausted, and we are hungry. I believe that we experience suffering any time we ask ourselves to be patient in pain.

We also experience it when we enter lonely places, when our hopes deflate, when our goals are not met, or when our lives are stress-riddled. We experience suffering when we make decisions in secret or live in cognitive dissonance with our values. Suffering finds us when we are rocky financially or broken relationally. When our families grow or fall apart, when we lose cities and houses and friendships. The Buddha was right — suffering is the fundamental human experience.

To be subjected to.

To experience something does not necessarily assign blame. For example, if you registered for the race, you invited the struggle. To be subjected to something adds something sinister to the concept: there is a powerlessness simmering below the surface. This brings up hard words like trauma, grieving, and sickness. Being subjected to something means forced to your knees. You are without say. Scream and break things as much as you want, but you do not have the power to re-write the facts.

Not everything we are subjected to is painful; however, in general, I think that feeling tends to be more humiliating and submissive than not.

This kind of suffering you cannot escape. You cannot quit what you cannot control. You cannot stop mourning, choose not to be anxious, or try to marionette someone’s actions. Powerless suffering is dangerous; the risk is learned helplessness.

To tolerate.

We tolerate annoyances. We tolerate pain. We tolerate failure and weakness; we tolerate authority. We tolerate evil. Our toleration has little to do with good and bad or right and wrong, but again we find that suffering is tied to power. We learn to tolerate the things outside of our control. This is also a dangerous space.

There is suffering we must tolerate, choose to tolerate, and there is suffering we must resist.

In my life, these definitions have been layered. Some of my very earliest childhood memories are painful and dissociative; to be subjected to as a small girl leaves marks. The positive of this introduction to suffering is that it brought an opponent into my life early: hurt. Fighting an opponent will make you stronger than not fighting at all.

As I grew up and started to understand the world, I moved into the second layer of suffering. I tolerated, and still tolerate at times, things that were intolerable. I made decisions I still don’t fully understand. In this position, we develop pain points, hide bruises, switch off, and build in triggers — all for the effort of survival. We tolerate the storm and cling to small faith that it will end.

Sometimes I was forced into toleration by threat, which denied my own reality. I tolerated their desires. I tolerated their selfishness. This made it impossible to tell where boundary lines used to be. We are all pushed forward and backward along the spectrum of suffering throughout our lives, like beads on a string.

The great irony of this is that it spirals us deeper into hurt. I later allowed people and things to enter my mind and body that my reality did not truly want, but I felt submissive to. I was under the delusion that I was trapped – that I had to tolerate it. A sneaky small voice asks: who are you to say no? Why would your needs be prioritized? In the end you will not die, so shut your eyes, suppress your will.

Untangling this idea of toleration was overwhelming to the point of forsaking reality altogether and drowning in alcohol or anything else that misdirected my hurt. In ultras and in life, there is a point of suffering that breaks away into apathy. At a dramatic point, you break. Who gives a fuck? becomes your battle cry.

The truth is, to tolerate something is neither positive or negative. I learned to distinguish an appropriate boundary for what I can absorb without consequence. I learned to tolerate abuse, and later I learned to tolerate it with mercy. Those are wildly different behaviors. One left marks on me, and the other was a gift given freely that never broke the skin. I learned to tolerate illness and evil on my terms instead of theirs. I also learned what I do not tolerate and equally as importantly: how to get away. This is a radical shift of power.

Ultra running

For two decades I tolerated fear and punishment, but today I refuse both. Toleration that leads to further violation is not the suffering that empowers us, not right away. I do not tolerate things that betray my reality. Some people would argue that you should be intolerant to all violations. Ideally that would be wonderful and probably pain-free, but we are human and we are full of mistakes. I think the wiser road is simply knowing your property lines.

I pursue endurance and discipline, which means I welcome the experience of suffering and I tolerate the struggle. Life has the power to pitch you into any of the layers at any time and you will be a pebble in a rockslide. Life can construct all sorts of suffering for you, on any day, that you will be powerless about, so I do not want to give you the impression that I have arrived anywhere above suffering’s reach, but my present suffering is often in my control — like running a hundred or two hundred miles.

It now is an exercise into reality, rather than a desperate attempt to exit it.

The suffering of an ultra is a productive experience to subject yourself because there is no ulterior motive. To be broken is a beautiful thing, especially in a safe place with people who understand. Even more blessed are those who break themselves.

To cut away the safety netting, the comfort, the easiness, and sometimes even your help — to remove it all and ask yourself if you are strong enough to keep going, if you are committed enough to endure the pain, if you are disciplined enough to continue to push forward — that is invaluable suffering. These are the decisions that keep us honest and help us mark our boundaries. These exercises help me know my own thoughts and feelings in no uncertain terms. For those of us who have had to live others’ realities, there is something freeing in living your own raw reality during the second half of an ultra. The pain grounds us, but not like the past.

The denial of suffering leads to locking the doors to rooms in our minds and slipping the keys on a keyring of delusion. Sometimes we do this so readily that we now carry a heavy jangle at all times. I think true freedom is perhaps throwing away the keyring entirely.

Some things cannot change—powerlessness is also part of life—but your interpretation of suffering can. Your relationship to it can. If you can accept that idea, you have already loosened its grip, just a little. We are not free when we are someone’s subject. Do not let suffering be your master.

Because we’ve chosen this sport, because we’ve attempted to give life’s aimless suffering a compass, we might be a little more free.

If you’re suffering with us, if you’re in control of your own suffering with us, I applaud your courage, and look forward to running with you today, tomorrow, and every day after, as ultra marathon runners.

Written by Julie Tertin. Julie is an ultra marathon runner who has raced (and won) ultra marathon distances 200 miles and beyond. You can connect with her at liveultrarunning.com or follow her on Instagram @live.ultra.

You might also like…

51 Ultra Running Quotes you need to read
Ultra running poems
Our most-popular hat

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Kill Comfort

Kill Comfort - Wicked Trail Running

I write this on day 2 of a 3 day juice fast. Just raw, cold-pressed juice for 3 days.

It’s not long enough that I can pledge my allegiance to any of the various corners of the internet dedicated to long, arduous fasts.

It’s just long enough to reset my taste buds, to rekindle my affection for taste without heaps of sugar, salt, and artificial enhancement.

This affection is easily lost in a world where consumption—unique, look-at-me, often frivolous consumption—signifies well-being (if excess can be called well-being).

This affection is easily lost with comfort always on our plates, always within an arm’s reach.

And that’s another side of my juice fast, away from the biological changes in taste, appetite, and preference.

It’s about comfort.

It’s about Killing Comfort.

Because comfort is always lurking, eager to drown the birth-given responsibility we have to do something noble, courageous. Courage is putting yourself in difficult situations and trusting your best self to step up and take it on.

If you’ve made it this far, if you rock Wicked Trail gear, you’re likely someone who practices courage.

And you ought to!

The other avenue is full of self-loathing, pity, and regret (just look around at most other people). It’s a world full of “what ifs” and “maybes.” It’s blaming luck and opportunity for the success of others, and imagining yourself special and unique for suffering (hint: nobody is special because of they suffer).

If you detest courage, if you push away difficult opportunities to test your best self, if you lean on artificial sensation and all these society-prescribed avenues toward happiness, your spirit and child-like wonder will rot and perish.

And we all need spirit, we all need that child-like wonder.

Adults need to ask themselves what’s possible; they need to climb, run, and swim—explore! They need to move away from mediocrity of mind, complacency of effort.



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It is such a tragedy that men and women are not in touch with their bodies, their minds, and the natural world’s relation to these.

Mountains, grass, trees, trails.

Rain, wind, snow, lightning.

Sensation.

Discomfort.

Nature working against you.

Kill Comfort.

It’s your only chance.

It’s your only chance to breathe deeply and know you are alive, not a brain-dead zombie drinking a pot of coffee to make it through work, and pouring a drink to numb the day’s happenings into a smiley blur. It’s your only chance to truly participate in courage, that test to put your best self forward. It’s your only chance to transcend the unspecial, mortal suffering we all participate in.

Kill Comfort.

Breathe deeply. Practice courage. Transcend your excuses, regrets, apprehensions, and anxieties.

Make them bleed.

Make them pay for their insistence on a life less-than-lived.

They thrive—fester—the longer you bask in comfort—soft couch, big TV, too much food, stimulants and depressants.

How long have you been sitting there?

Draw your sword.

Lace your boots.

Go to war.

Kill Comfort.

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Unsympathetic Discomfort

Wicked Trail Ultra Running Blog Unsympathetic Discomfort

I think I’m pretty tough. You probably think you’re pretty tough.

I train intentionally, eat for performance, and structure my life to include a heavy dose of discomfort.

But lately I’ve reflected on toughness, that easily claimed attribute of the modern athlete.

A historical feat of endurance forced some hard questions into my mind.

Could I survive two years in the most inhospitable place on Earth?

Could I stay sane in a place where catastrophe was always a misstep away?

What if food was scarce, the weather was unforgiving, and the very ground beneath my feet threatened my life?

It’s all hard to imagine. Those odds are strenuously unfavorable.

It’s likely you and I would not survive such a test.

But it’s been done.

Those impalpable odds were overcome, the Earth and elements submitted, the catastrophe avoided.

And not one of the 28 men died.

Perhaps you know the impossible story. It made the news recently when the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s ship, was found 106 years later and 2 miles deep in Antarctic water.

A crew of 26 men (and one stowaway—can you imagine sneaking aboard to join such an ill-fated mission?) and their captain, Ernest Shackleton, attempted to make the first trans-Antarctic crossing in 1914. After their ship became stuck in crushing ice flows, the men were forced to abandon it. They were stranded for almost 2 years in the harshest environment—not survivable by modern standards—on this planet.

Check out Endurance on Amazon.

Here are a few of the tortures they endured:

  • Using packed snow as toilet paper for over a year
  • Wind madness: mental deterioration due to constant and severe winds. Sustained 100+ mph winds were common across the sea of packed ice
  • Going months without sunlight: the men endured a 4 month stretch of darkness
  • Surgical removal of gangrene and frostbite in austere conditions

Not. One. Life. Lost.

The lessons are abundant; some leap from the pages of the book (Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. Tap here to check it out on Amazon) and others require reflection. There are themes of leadership, patience, and camaraderie. Survival and navigation, faith and trust, fear and purpose.

But it’s none of these that fascinates me.

The one theme that has gripped me since finishing the books is discomfort.

Pure, unforgiving, uncaring, unsympathetic discomfort.

You see, we like to think we know discomfort. It comes with being tough. We sweat and bleed for our goals, changing our bodies and minds into formidable weapons by years of challenge. We pound pavement and climb mountains, pursuing an ideal by habit and fatigue.

We show up today and tomorrow and the next day, hungry for hard work.

Today is an easy length of time to battle. It’s easy to digest discomfort for just a day, or even just a few hours on trails, when we know soft, cozy beds wait at home. And so it’s easy for us to embrace our little doses of discomfort, to claim hardship as our path.

But every day has an end. For most of us, it ends easily in softness and warmth.

But still we claim hardship.

We spend hours in the rain, scrambling up steep singletrack, and suffering through ultra races. We count our calluses and inundate our brains with motivational messages. We pursue big goals and sign up for big challenges.

At least I do. And you probably do too.

And I thought I knew hardship, discomfort.

Until I read this book.

Because I realized I knew discomfort of today, but I had no understanding of unsympathetic discomfort, discomfort which is inanimate and unmoving, discomfort which is a mountain of impregnable stone.

This book gave me a glimpse of savage survival in the face of that unsympathetic discomfort, that which knows no laws or treaties, has no blood or breath, and has no eyes for human tears. To survive such internal, mental chaos—or to bring your people through such darkness alive, as Shackleton did—what would that require?

What does it require of me today? Tomorrow?

What habits create such patience for misery?

Could I endure that hardship?

My immediate reaction is YES. It’s a reaction I’m proud of.

But I know there is still work to do.



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And it’s hard to identify exactly what type of work molds a person for impossible hardship, unsympathetic discomfort.

Perhaps, my eyes opened anew to life’s incredible cruelty by this book, my mindset has shifted from TRAIN to PREPARE. If those words are divisible, it is only the latter I now inhale and exhale with the sweat and blood of my pursuit. “PREPARE” for the trials you are not ready for, for unsympathetic discomfort, for natural cruelty beyond reason.

Wind madness, gangrene and frostbite, leopard seal attacks, and months of darkness are miseries you and I cannot imagine. Even typing this now, it takes great effort to conjure those images. It doesn’t feel possible that humans endured, and survived, such calamity.

But we’ve other miseries, modern calamities, to prepare for.

You needn’t be damned to Antarctic ice to understand the lessons of Shackleton’s crucible.

Disease, financial disaster, mental illness, and the loss of family and friends can easily ruin a modern person. Culture even allows such ruin; society permits unending trauma and mourning and tells us constantly “It’s okay.” It is offensive and tasteless to lament the ruin of the modern person, to tell someone to rise up and keep moving (though you and I still might).

Shackleton and his men did not permit ruin, unending trauma and mourning.

They knew their situation wasn’t okay, and they didn’t care.

They had work to do.

And there was no one watching.

And there was no one to hold their frostbitten hands.

And there was no social sympathy.

There was no escape, no relief from the burden.

And still they survived that which should not be survivable.

They knew their situation wasn’t okay, and they didn’t care.

I can hardly say a person can “train” to survive insurmountable odds. It doesn’t feel sufficient. Shackleton and his men didn’t volunteer to be stranded in Antarctica for 20 months, and they didn’t train for that moment. My own understanding of the word “training” is effort toward a moment of achievement, but they weren’t offered an achievement. After that long stranded, even rescue wasn’t an achievement. It was a necessity. Death by starvation or the vicious efforts of nature was the only other option.

I’ll keep working for achievements. I’m not giving up competition and progress.

But I’m preparing.

It has a different taste on my tongue.

Go ahead, say it out loud.

“I’m preparing.”

I’m preparing for wind madness, gangrene and frostbite, leopard seal attacks, and months of darkness, though these I’ll likely never see. I’m preparing for uncertainty, loneliness, and despair. I’m preparing for life to completely remove comfort and ease from my life, to thrust me into savage dependence on my past experiences and a future I can hardly grasp.

Few people understand unsympathetic discomfort and can imagine the descendance of such cruelty.

We’re all flesh and blood, and so we’re all vulnerable.

When life rips you from luxury, or convenience, or simple pleasures (I can’t imagine the crew of the Endurance felt much pleasure during their crucible), do not die. Do not die when instability or uncertainty rock your world, when your possessions are stolen and your values violated.

That’s the lesson of the Endurance.

And it’s why we show up, ready to fight, for every single challenge we volunteer for.

For every day we open our eyes.

Death is easy.

Death is warranted.

But do not die.

Fight.

One short-of-breath, hands-shaking step after step.

Darkness overhead, uncertainty before you, discomfort unwavering.

Endure.

Your life depends on it.

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Royalty

purple running hat explanation blog post WTR

Color isn’t accidental.

There’s a Wicked Trail original quote I’ve shared a few times on Instagram. It goes like this: “Mountains are where weak men and women go to die. Go to the mountains.”

The first time I wrote that short line, I imagined myself atop a mountain, mission accomplished. Often during these daydreams-while-writing, it’s raining. I’m usually alone. I’m always at the top, looking back over the valley and hills and switchbacks that brought me to that peak.

I’m looking over the domain of my adventure, the physical realm I climbed and the intangible battles I fought along the way.

I am atop some throne. It’s an old, wooden throne out in the open. It’s exposed to the elements, to the rain and wind. I’d been there hundreds of times in my mind, reflecting and writing, when this frequent daydream collided with another idea I’d always entertained.

I always wanted to make a purple running hat.

It was the bold color, the daring nature of white mountains blazed on the side, with Comfort Is A Lie written across the front. I thought a 5-panel purple running hat was the perfect home for such a bold phrase, a bold commitment to discomfort.

Purple is bold, it is daring. It has a flavor of commitment, doesn’t it?

Perhaps this ‘commitment’ is the nature of purple: royalty, luxury in some cultures. In others, redemption.

By discomfort we are turned into kings and queens of some intangible, dreamlike domain, a place where our redemption from mediocrity and complacency is heavy breaths, tired legs, and blistered feet. Often times we look over this imaginary landscape during races, hard workouts, or long days working. By our commitment to fatigue and adventure (our unwillingness to bow out in the face of such hardship) we summit those tall mountains.

And upon those mountains we take the throne.

Like I said, it’s an old, wooden thing. It’s exposed to cold rain. It’s knobby and rough.

But it’s perfectly luxurious.

Can you feel it beneath you? Close your eyes.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail…

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Stranded on a Desert Island

Ultrarunning blog post develop a code

It’s a silly, simple question.

No, it’s more than that.

It’s a question that has tugged at my mind, manipulated my intentions, and directed my actions for a long time. I’m not here to crowd-please or coddle the spaces of others, but the curious question has given relation to people I might not even like (or more often, people I do like) and my code of habits and efforts. It has taken me across 100-mile finish lines and influenced huge life choices.

It’s a question you’ve heard and asked before (probably).

Are you following me?

It is paramount that a person develops, or acknowledges the need to develop, a code of habits and efforts – the laws of your feet, hands, and tongue – to lean on in uncertain, stressful, or hostile situations. Your code structures work and play, family time and socializing.

Without this code, it is unlikely that you will find yourself on the positive end of the question. In fact, if you are currently on the negative end of the question (and it couldn’t hurt to ask an honest friend), your life is not what it could be.

The question is this:

“If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want with you?”

You’ve been asked that before, right?

That question is wrapped tightly around my mind, and I am certain it has influenced my life in a massive, positive way.

Are you on the positive end of it?

This isn’t an appeal for agreeableness and I’m not asking you to soften up and be a pushover.

It’s more like this:

“Are you the dependable, strong, patient, intentional person?”

It’s not nodding and smiling during disagreements. It’s not sheepishly accepting disrespect. It’s not moving aside for every other pedestrian or motorist. Nor is it eccentric, dim-witted, people-pleasing to maintain a social or cultural norm.

It is a code. Your code. Our code.

The code of those who seek to lead and inspire, to bear some burden, and to venture into the unknown. It is the code of those who accept life’s mischief and refuse to be beaten down by it.

 

The Code

Developing such a code (and you ought to develop one) is simple. It’s an integration of your personalities into some dependable, strong, patient, intentional being. Let the dependability flow from your family or work life, the strength from the hours under a barbell or climbing mountain switchbacks, the patience from your financial goals, and the intentional action from your passions.

On the island, that desolate, hot, sun-scorched rock floating in shark-infested waters, dependability is good work done well and fast.

Strength is beneficial manipulation of the environment.

Patience is sacrifice; abstain now for longevity of order.

Being intentional is using concise and deliberate speech and action to meet an ideal.

These definitions fit life, too.

The question of your island companionship is really the question of who would be the greatest ally in life’s mischief.

And life’s mischief stands just outside your door, eager to tear down pursuit and adventure, to sink a person’s legs into the concrete of normalcy.

Don’t leave your reactions and words to chance.

Life’s mischief can look like this: You’re having a great day: your morning run went smooth, you stretched, took the dog for a walk, and now you’re sipping hot coffee in morning traffic. It’s chilly outside, but the sun is shining strong.

This is going to be a great day.

You’re early to work and get a head start on the day’s happenings. Oh, and you just realized it’s Friday.

Outside, a customer parks his car and saunters in. His name is Lionel Mischeff (get it?).

He sees your glowing, Friday-morning-ready-for-the-weekend face smiling at him, and you remind him of his jerk neighbor who won’t cut his grass.

Lionel decides (though he doesn’t necessarily do it consciously) to ruin your day.

He complains about your service, questions your knowledge, and abuses your policies. He is socially incompetent and unable to behave within the realm of your good day.

Has something like this ever happened to you?

How do you react?

More often than not, when our good days, good weeks, or good years (looking at you, 2019) are rained on by customers, family, finances, pandemics, health, politics, and many other mischiefs, we retreat to frustration and impatience.

It’s too easy.

Your speech shortens, your temperature rises, and you take to gossip and negative internal dialogue. We frame life’s mischief as unfair, malicious, and intent on our demise.

We have no code to deal with life’s mischief.

Why it matters

The easiest path to take is victimhood. It requires no effort, stimulates no growth, and rejects ownership of our path, our journey, our mission.

Victims Die Slow: when a person begs for solutions without looking inward, cries for help from the mud of pity, or allows the negative dialogue about that annoying customer to fester in the mind, the flame of aspiration dwindles.

Aspirations dwindle for the impatient, for the gossipers of no goodwill, and for the finger-pointing blameless because their own status becomes the ideal.

I don’t mean socioeconomic status. I don’t mean Facebook status.

I mean their point A (right now) and their point B (what’s coming).

This person has ruined my day.

This bill has ruined my week.

This injury has ruined my month.

This disease will ruin my life.

This accident will cost me everything.

Your point A becomes more important than the other point A: the person, situation, or environment ‘threatening’ you.

Your point B, your destination, seems doomed. Your weekend is ruined, your plans are shot, your eyes fall from goals and action to despair.

Because life’s mischief said no.

Despair and negativity ensues. Frustration boils. Your eyes fall and shoulders sag, your smile takes a vacation.

You’ve failed.

You failed not because of life’s mischief. It will come for everyone, after all. None of special enough to avoid bad things.

You failed because you did not have a code.

You’re on the wrong side of the question: “If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want with you?”

My Code

I’m not begging perfection. It would be impossible and dishonorable to tame your emotions to complete disuse.

However, it is better to practice emotional stability and direct passion and interest toward positivity and growth.

I’d say it’s paramount to success in ultrarunning (and life).

My code is this (and maybe it’s yours too):

“I want to be called on for the desert island. I want to be an anchor in another’s tossing sea. I want to exhibit the dependability, patience, strength, and intentional action needed to survive the worst of life’s mischief, that desert island, and become more dependable, patient, strong, and intentional through it. My presence ought to bring forth positive emotion and inspire dependability, strength, patience, and intentional action in others.

“When life’s mischief comes knocking, when some ghoul throws me down and puts the gun to my head, I will smile. I signed up for life the day I finished my first ultramarathon, wrote my first novel, and sold my car to bike more. Moments like these define the desert island. That’s where I want to be. For the good of others, and for the pursuit of more in my own life.”

That’s my Wicked Trail.

What’s yours?

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White Knuckles

White Knuckles by Wicked Trail Running

The blue sky turned grey, the concrete turned to ice, and our wandering eyes, exploring the Virginia mountainsides, turned to the road. The snow fell in clumps and the temperature dropped; the higher our four wheels drove, the whiter my sister’s knuckles became.

We passed the ski resort we’d be staying at and climbed higher and higher toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, America’s Favorite Drive, where packet pickup for the Bel Monte 50 waited in the silent, white trees.

A truck passed us on the two lane, precipitous road. Around a steep bend, we saw hazard lights flashing and vehicles pulled over.

Then our wheels spun, and the car slid backward.

Contrary to our general assumption, her SUV was not four-wheel drive.

“It wasn’t even supposed to snow.”

We were sliding, turning, and she was trying to keep it between the deep, snowy shoulder of the mountain and the hundreds-of-feet drop—impressive and wonderful before the snow—to our now right side. She managed to right her car facing down the mountain road and we slid, sometimes stopping, mostly going, always with white knuckles and teeth gritting.

“If you lose it, just steer into the shoulder,” I remember saying. “We don’t want to go that way.” I looked over the edge, an arm’s reach away.

I didn’t think we would make it down that long, steep, mountain road without a ruined trip. The snow was too heavy, the roads a slick slush over ice, and cars kept whirring past us, heading up the reluctant mountain.

A small inn, perched on the edge of the mountain, perhaps built just for those envious of AWD vehicles, saved our trip. We slid into the parking lot—wondering if we’d make it back up the short incline to the road—and waited.

We were less than a mile and two hairpin turns from our true destination (forgetting early packet pickup, by this point). We asked if the inn had a room, and they did. However, the owner told us, “When the plows come by, you should be alright.”

The plows did come, sooner than we expected, and we found our way to the relief of our Airbnb.

Perpetual Comfort

Technology has enthralled our minds with conditions. There need never be a moment of uncomfortable sensation in our lives. Deep libraries of music, movies, television, and books lay at our fingertips. Cars turn on from our frosted windows and their heated seats invite us in from the cold and rain. Medication can heal your smallest pains, or mental insecurities. Everything can be just so.

Even primitive elements of human life have become conditional: taking the elevator after leg day, or when you’ve got your steps in; sitting to read only when social media has run out of entertainment; conversing with like-minded people—or family—only when under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Is that not where humankind ought to head? That state of limitless access and conditional participation?

Shouldn’t we be toiling endlessly for perpetual comfort and enjoyment?

Shouldn’t we invent and create and innovate to make comfort accessible for everyone?

STAND AGAINST IT.

It’s a hard position to stand against, and this is not an appeal to live a life without joy, satisfaction, and pleasure (Though I would beg people to consider the sources of their joy, satisfaction, and pleasure). I don’t mean for you to take to the streets and protest technology, entertainment, or innovation.

It’s a personal stand, a personal step into rain and wind, snow and ice, and the dark forest.

The Stand

Life, though we try, cannot be tamed. The conditions, even as we work to keep everything in line, evolve rapidly.

When we sit near the fire of culture, that warm glow of light that keeps the monsters away, our smiles grow big. We smile and laugh and forget the dark forest around us, contrasting the flickering fire. Our legs and back weaken, our lungs breathe the soft flavored smoke of contentment, and our eyes grow weak. Soon, an orange glow is all we can see, blurred and gentle.

Don’t sit around that fire, weak and warm and eased into complacency, unaware of the monsters creeping about the forest. When they come—as they certainly will—the one who set his conditions, who lights a fire in the dark forest, drinks warm cider, and numbs himself to sensation, will be devoured. He will blindly cry and beg and be dragged away from that warm glow, deep into the black nighttime forest, unlikely to escape.

Stand against it.

Sink into the forest, away from the warm fire and the giggling fools captivated by it.

Find the monsters in the forest and cut them down with strong legs, study shoulders, and clear eyes. Breathe well, cold and alone, pained and fatigued.

This is the ultra marathon; it is the dark forest away from the fire of culture, the one that ropes people into blind smiles and vulnerable giggles.

Your Conditions

Give fear, white knuckles and heavy breaths, a place at your table. When you’re sliding down some icy mountain, afraid of failure and worried for your journey, remember why you started up the mountain to begin with. Acknowledge the monsters creeping about—ice and snow and the precarious cliff—and know that the conditions are not your own, and they never will be.

It is your responsibility to act unconditionally, and to proactively fail to set conditions. Keep the seat heaters off, leave your headphones at home, turn the TV off during that bike trainer session. Skip the beer, take the stairs, and start your day without any glance at social media—or technology (try one of these books, maybe).

Be Your Own Culture: it is with such ease that we fall into an addiction to conditions. It’s the direction of technology and innovation, and the money fueling these, for everything to be set to our desires and preferences.

Your favorite workout song, the one you start every set with, might lead to failure down the road. Your pre-run PB&J or coffee, those sweet and sharp fuels of routine, might be handcuffing you. Your average weekend, conditioned into cozy relief from work, might be drawing you into a life of mediocrity.

I know my preferences, and you know yours.

The Wicked Trail has her own; you’ll never know them, and you don’t need to. You’re there anyway: squatting under the barbell or climbing the mind-numbing switchbacks late in the race or pounding your feet over miles of pavement. You’re in the forest, running toward challenge and discomfort.

And you’re smiling because you’ve been there before. You’ve stepped into the dark trees every time you skipped dessert, turned the AC off, put the phone down, or held discomfort’s hand.

Isn’t this why we run ultra marathons? To stand against ease and accessibility, warmth and known conditions? To hold onto, with white knuckles, the distant finish line, hours and miles away?

You see the fire glowing in the distance and hear the soft song of culture. Keep running.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail.

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The Timing of Chaos

The Timing of Chaos - Wicked Trail Running Ultra Marathon blog cover photo

Humans instinctually amass resources. It’s hammered into our ancient DNA to acquire and protect. It’s hunger and thirst, wealth and ease; it’s each of these with a propensity to the stimulation of our mind’s reward—pleasure—centers. We’re pickers, choosers, and takers. We select the good, work for eventual perpetual relaxation, and along the way take materials that will get us there, or give us a taste of it.

Sometimes, though, against our deepest cries for normalcy, things turn bad. An easy example is the COVID-19 pandemic, but it isn’t always as obvious and widespread. It can be personal, familial, or within a community. Chaos doesn’t ask for the world’s attention; it only needs one person.

It dances about and laughs at whoever notices it, those pickers and choosers and takers who spent so much time creating their worlds of eventual relaxation. Their eyes try to blink away the tears, and still chaos circles and laughs and begs them: Why did you think to control it all? Who are YOU?

Control. It’s a human’s attempt to live with blinders on.

It’s a craving to experience that perpetual relaxation, to control the timing of chaos.

Let it come while I sleep.

Let it come after my career.

Let it come for them, over there.

When a picker or chooser or taker loses perceived control (he or she never had it, after all), when chaos dances about, snickering, compensation must be had. We scream at chaos: I did it all right. I picked the goal, chose the path, and took the resources that would get me there. Give me time! Give me space!

Compensation looks like entitlement. It is entitlement.

Struck down, bank account empty or health gone or love lost, we demand. We demand help from Time and Life; we become reliant on support and stimulation, tricking our brains into a false allegiance with hope.

It’s not real hope, though, because you never gave up picking and choosing and taking. You were struck down—unspecially—for your craving of perpetual relaxation. You wanted control of chaos and blinders to altruism.

The pickers and choosers and takers leave behind only the tangible waste of consumption and desire. They’ve put little thought into habits, lived inconsiderate of life (and it doesn’t take any effort to live inconsiderate of life), and ignored the songs of birds for screens and opinions.

If I had to elevate to prominence one gift ultrarunning has given me, it would be awareness of picking and choosing and taking. It’s the existence without thought and curiosity; overcoming it takes work, change, and time.

Hobbling along dark trails with other people—all traversing many miles with sore feet and tired eyes, all craving something more in the experience of their lives—I saw forfeiture of control as the path toward achievement. There was no picking which muscles would be sore, which toes would blister, and which aid stations would be out of my wants. I could not choose sunshine and warmth, smooth and flat. The ultra marathon, like chaos, does not yield to the runner’s demands. We cannot cry and ask for extra time, or space from discomfort; achievement demands only action and indifference to the despair of the trail.

It takes work, change, and time: I’ve DNF’d and thrown pity parties. I’ve succumbed to cold and fatigue. I’ve sat on the side of the trail, wishing it would end.

But I’ve also learned a great amount about thought and curiosity, consideration for life, and the songs of birds.

I now think deeply about purpose and its relation to the world, other people—like those other runners on the dark trails. Why do we run these races? [This might be why…]

I am curious now about other people, and myself. What habits, actions, and beliefs create an indomitable will capable of training for and succeeding in ultra marathon events? What of where I am now is holding me back, and what are my strengths in this arena? How does physical and mental endurance translate to the propagation of strength and character among other people, families and friends and coworkers?

I’ve always had an affinity for animals and wild things, but ultrarunning begged me: What is life? I looked around at the thousands of trees and plants and animals that gave a home to the fatigue and massive challenge of ultra marathons, and fell into alignment with preserving the outdoors, keeping the natural world as it is for the life it gives me, for the opportunity it provides to smile with tired eyes and blistered toes and shaky knees. My life, one of growth by the scalding fire of ultra endurance challenges, depends on the green planet we live on.

Thoughtfulness, curiosity, and an appreciation for life—mine and the moving and growing things around me—all come together when I hear birds sing. It’s especially prevalent just after a race director releases us runners from the starting corral. Their hums and whistles and loos have such variety and color I become curious of their origin; what sort of bird made that sound? As my mind listens to the sounds of the birds singing, and the trees and dirt coming to life, I find myself observing the forest, sensing its depth and complexity. A thoughtful quietness comes over the pack of runners; the smells and sounds of any dirt trail will induce reflection. The reflection turns to the adventure ahead; the miles and hours of winding and rooty and rocky trails unfold and come to pass, one mile or one hour at a time.

It took work, change, and time to get here, and I’m far from all the way there. There are dragons to slay, mountains to climb, and races to run. There are books to read, conversations to have, and habits to study.

Take control of your life—true control—by taking the blinders off. Acknowledge the decay that accompanies picking, choosing, and taking; identify your lifestyle choices and habits that leave that tangible waste of consumption and desire, and leave you vulnerable to chaos.

I’ve crossed some off my list.

Challenge yourself in the discomfort of your own ultra marathon. Move toward thoughtfulness and curiosity. Consider life, yours and the green and feathered and furry ones your journey depends on. Listen to those birds; they have a lot to sing about.

Find your Wicked Trail…

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Torture Your Faults

Torture Your Faults Ultra Marathon Blog

Mornings are hard. Cold weather is hard. Late nights are hard. Saying no to fun is hard.

Nobody asked you to Be Your Own Culture, to chase something intangible and pursue an imagined ideal.

You don’t have to do whatever hard thing you’re doing. You can probably die happy without ever running, squatting under a barbell, or toeing the line for a 100 mile race.

It would be the easier route, right?

The only entity that will question your sloth, your commitment to fitting in, your addiction to plush couches and big screens and instant gratification is the Wicked Trail, that place in your mind where challenge lives, where opportunity thrives as a student of fatigue and pain and adventure.

Culture will not hold you accountable; only the knowledge buried in your mind –that adventure and dissociation from normalcy are one step away– will haunt you.

It’s your call, your decision. It’s a joyous YES or a doubtful and afraid NO.

Have you decided?

That joyous YES demands kinetic commitment, one of action.

You must embrace the hard and challenging and inconvenient. Find a smile in heavy breaths and wobbly legs and blistered toes.

Identify strengths and build them; search for your weaknesses and wring them out.

Torture Your Faults.

Torturing your faults isn’t a negative proposition. It’s not meant for you to ride yourself miserable for your weaknesses and failures. Rather, celebrate and go in the direction of your strengths. Build them and strategize your mission in relation to them.

Then, while honoring your strengths in goal-oriented action, expose those things that do not contribute to your success or the betterment of your team, those people with whom you’re building a community of pursuit.

Faults; Parasites

Impatience, addiction, regret; it may be just a crumb, but at least one these faults has burrowed into your mind. They bore a black and diseased hole and feed on the stimulation of a culture possessed by ease and gratification.

I’ve seen impatience in running with my dog; I want him to skip the many pee stops and sniff breaks for a continuous effort. I’ve had to pay close attention to my emotions and ensure I allow him to be a dog. Don’t worry about the time on your watch; Cowboy is enjoying this run with you.

Addiction hides in ease and accessibility. Cell phones are one of the sneakiest fiends of addiction. Social networks and quick-stop news sites are wired to keep us coming back; I’ve found myself forgetting the actual thing I logged on for and aimlessly perusing pictures on Instagram. Sugar, alcohol, or caffeine, anyone?

I wrote about regret here. Before you ever miss out, fail, or fall into defeat, regret lives in your mind. It feeds on daily indecision and indifference, growing into a monster of what-ifs and maybes that plague a person with negativity. Don’t feed it. After DNF’ing from the Umstead 100, quitting with an indifference to my goal, my pursuit, I felt massive regret. It’s easy to sit in regret and doubt capabilities, motives, and orientation. That’s what regret wants: doubt.

Torture Your Faults

Take your impatience into the sunlight; tie him up and drag him to to the starting line of a 100 mile race. Bring her on your training runs, those ten mile slogs on tired legs, when you must sit in the discomfort and quiet your mind. Impatience will howl and beg for relief in your daily life, if you choose challenge and adventure. Stay in the right lane on your morning commute, let someone take your place in line during the weekend grocery store rush, or just sit –alone with your thoughts– on a bench before entering a store. Inconvenience yourself for the sake of waiting; you’ll need that skill when it comes to ‘mile 90’ of whatever your goal is.

Addiction is tricky. She sneaks around and stays in the shadows. He is brushed off as normal and acceptable. Filling everyone’s cup with warmth, addiction flourishes. We are chemically inclined for comfort; our minds crave salt, sugar, and fat. Medicate, alleviate, and allow your life to spiral into dependence. It’s not just pills and nicotine; look around at the cravings you satisfy every single day. The time has come to torture your addiction. Tape his mouth shut and chain him to challenge. Put your sugar cravings under a heavy barbell and take your caffeine dependence down a dark, twisting trail. Comfort Is A Lie; show your addiction rain and mud, steep ascents and long miles. Do not let addiction have her say: find strength in achievement and the sensation of rugged experience.

Ah, regret. That festering negativity for missing out, for sitting on the sidelines of life. He or she is the fear that your life will remain as it is: complacent, boring, and unfulfilled. Send your regret an email, a link. Better yet, invite him over to watch you peruse UltraSignUp or RunSignUp. Take her for coffee and tell her about your plans for a Spartan Race, a backpacking trip, or a 100 mile ultra marathon. She’ll get angry. He’ll throw a fit. Good. Regret has no place at your table. You’ve left concern and worry behind; your thoughts have moved on to brighter, more adventurous, and hugely challenging endeavors.

Sweaty palms, calloused feet, and heavy breaths.

Pine trees, roots and rocks, and cold creek crossings.

Belt buckles, finish line pictures, and passions pursued.

Write the book.

Learn the skill.

Take the plunge.

Find a Wicked Trail…

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Ask Yourself One Question

Ultrarunners should ask themselves one question

Most people, even many hardened by the pursuit of the experience and sensation that is ultra marathon running, lack fulfillment.

What is fulfillment, anyway?

I’ll let you answer that yourself; most people have a decent idea of what their lives fulfilled might look like.

Close your eyes and imagine your life, fulfilled.

I’m going to guess you’re not quite there, yet.

You might have a plan, an ideal, or a path. Your values and beliefs frame a mission for your life, for a fulfilled life.

There need to be some changes, sure: your job (or just your boss), location (“If only I was in the mountains”), or acquaintances (“I need new friends…”). We all have some environmental factor restricting our growth, some segment of our life or a habit keeping us in the same place.

Right?

Wrong.

Way wrong.

I battled the notion for some time that my environment dictated what I could do and who I could become; it was a lie of culture, a culture fixated on flashy social media profiles and influencer hype. If I didn’t adhere to some brand of success or achievement, my personal mission was at stake.

I was wrong.

My fulfillment, my mission, never depended on anything but my own action.

One question loomed, unanswered, over my head. Through every pair of running shoes I wore out, through every lunge and squat and plank, through every victory and regression and imitation of some brand of success or achievement, I never asked myself:

What if I was better than I am?

The person you closed your eyes and imagined, the fulfilled life you saw, lives on the other side of that question.

It’s a question that has to be answered daily—even every second!—if your desire for ‘fulfillment’ is sincere, if you decide to commit yourself to a higher mission or a victory you can only imagine.

We fall into daydreams and wishes, as if men and women are meant to always be imagining some better place for their lives in some distant future that is only attainable through a massive storm of environmental change. We never stop and wonder if where we are right now is where we’re meant to be, and despite every limitation imposed by the company we keep, our career, finances, and lack of opportunity, if this place is where we are meant to take root and explode in personal growth.

Maybe where we are right now is our greatest asset; to change it, to play into those daydreams of if only, would be to thwart the path we’re on toward mission success.

It’s a dangerous pattern of wishing and searching, beginning and striving, and falling back into despair of circumstance.

Break the cycle: commit the air in your lungs and the blood in your veins to that mission, that peak of accomplishment, without regard for your state of life.

It starts with one question: What if I was better than I am?

Find your Wicked Trail…

 


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Don’t Uber Through Life: An Ultrarunner’s Reflection

Don't Uber Through Life. An Ultrarunner's Reflection

At mile 70, I said I’m done.

I didn’t want to go on. The race hadn’t gone the way I wanted, and my torched hip was bleeding doubts into my mind.

My crew didn’t argue, there was no thinking; it was “I’m done” and we were walking away from the aid station toward our transport.

I felt fine. It was relief and silence; no one spoke.

Crawling into bed that night, I knew I made the right decision.

Waking up the next day, and for weeks after, that right decision haunted me.

[3 Things I Learned From My 100 Mile DNF]

I quit, there is no other explanation necessary.

Last night, over eight months later, I almost quit again.

I caught myself. This one would have been easier to explain: I got a flat tire at 8:30 PM riding my bike home from work. It’s a 9 mile ride, and I was only four miles in; I was 5 miles away from dinner and a hot shower.

My girlfriend offered to come bring me a spare tube or a lift home. I went to check Uber XL prices.

Then I stopped.

WHY?

This is the question I should have asked at Umstead 100, when I walked away after 70 miles.

“Why did you come here?”

I couldn’t see through the fog of pain and disappointment; my goal time was slipping with my stacking nausea and muscle strain.

I went there for challenge and discomfort, for miles and the finish line.

I went to finish.

When I reached for my phone last night, wondering if I should take my girlfriend up on a ride or hail an Uber, I asked myself this question: WHY? Why do you ride your bike to and from work in the cold?

It’s the question I should have asked that cold April night: WHY?

I ride my bike home for the commitment to an active lifestyle, for the extra time out of breath, and for the practice of slowing down–patience. It’s a rejection of rehearsed haste and road rage, of reliance and heated-leather-seat relief.

Things Go Wrong

Just like Umstead 100 went wrong with nausea and strained muscles, my bike ride went wrong with a shard of metal sunk in my tire.

Things go wrong.

Things going wrong should never alter a person’s commitment to the mission. My mission last night was traveling home under my own power for the sake of exercise, patience, and mental training for the crucible that is the ultra marathon.

My mission 8 months ago in April was to cross the finish line for the sake of the person I am called to be, for the Taller Peak.

I ‘Ubered’ away at mile 70, unwilling to see the mission through because things went wrong, the race did not unfold how I intended.

I took the easy way out.

I neglected the responsibility I have in signing up for ultra marathons: to let my life be driven by an instinct for meaning, for purpose.

Last night, 5 dark and cold miles from home, I decided I would not repeat what happened at Umstead.

I decided against the quick and easy path, the phone call or the Uber ride.

I decided to be responsible for the future-me, out running some 100 mile race, cold and tired and beat down, ready to say those words again: “I’m done.”

I decided to put my bike on my shoulder and walk.

For the sake of the person I am called to be, for the Taller Peak.

Revisit Your Quits

This week on Instagram, I posted the following picture. It may have been divine intervention that I wrote those words only a day before getting that flat tire, the one that made me ask WHY?

“Be better than the you who came short,” I captioned the picture.

Last night, that was the decision I made. I decided to be better than the guy who walked away from that 100 mile race, the crucible that is the ultra marathon.

When the easy road shines so bright that it’s hard to see the truth of your mission, your goal, ask yourself one question: Why did I come here?

Then put one foot in front of the other, and carry on.

Stay on the Wicked Trail…

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Instinct For Meaning: My Journey to 100 Miles

Instinct For Meaning my journey to 100 miles

Meaning is heavy.

You’ve felt it.

Haven’t you?

It’s the highest good of your existence, that place where your passions and curiosities interact musically with the history and future of our world.

A chill up your spine, tears in your eyes, anger climbing your face, your laugh bouncing from person to person, lighting a room: meaning is manifested in passion. You can feel it in emotionally charged actions and responses.

Humans have an instinct for meaning.

We are biologically and spiritually inclined to pursue the highest good of our existence; our ears are tuned to that musical interaction of our passions and curiosities with the history and future of the world.

Do not neglect this instinct, this inclination.

It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and watch life pass by. Everyone else does it. Our potential for significance, for the fulfillment of meaning in our lives, is lost in a social blur of images and captions and distraction and work. We work and life goes on. We work for money, for satisfaction, and for opinions, and life goes on. We’re distracted by voices and sounds and flashing images and what comes next.

We get caught up in that social blur and our instinct for meaning, our biological and spiritual appetite for pursuit, is numbed. It’s like a taste bud that has danced with sugar for years, always yearning for that sweet relief from the boredom of existence with all the other taste buds. We need the stimulation to keep pace with the lie of culture: culture says satisfaction is found in the eyes and mouths of other people.

And so, we fall in line; we dance with the sugar of images and captions and distractions and work. Just like everyone else.

Do you realize the damage you’re doing?

When your instinct for meaning is numbed, when you cannot put to canvas your passions and visions of excellence, you forgo responsibility.

You forgo the responsibility to the person you are called to be.

That person exists. He or she is out there, in some future Earth, expertly living out your meaning, your purpose.

What will it take to become that person?

Decision.

DECIDE

Decide to feed your instinct for meaning. Life will not just happen. If you are waiting for a new home, a new job, a new car, a new friend, a new relationship, a new inspiration, or a new motivation, I have news for you: the person you are called to be, that person you are responsible for, is dying. He or she is fading away, lost and never to be born.

Your indecision and laziness, your passive approach to fulfillment, is slowly cutting the throat of that future you.

You are responsible for his or her wellness. That person might exist forever in some mental dimension of regret, of instinct ignored and challenge left for another day. Indecision, laziness, and passiveness are toxins of culture, a culture eager to feed on your unfulfilled and meaningless life.

Culture slips these into your days, poisoning your environment.

You are responsible to keep the person you are called to be tangible; live a concise, intentional, active, and curious life for the sake of that future you.

Anything less leaves you dancing with that social blur of eyes and ears intoxicated with the idols of culture: expectations, opinions, regrets, addiction, self-worship.

Find a Wicked Trail, that place in your mind where challenge and adversity serve as allies to your growth instead of obstructions to your complacent existence; take responsibility for pursuit and adventure.

Watch me cross the finish line after nearly 30 hours:

TAKE ACTION

Acting, doing things to move your present self toward purpose, is the only path.

You must identify that moment in your life where your instinct called out, where you were moved to visualize a future of more of the same feeling.

Your instinct for meaning was begging relevance, calling for a place at your table. Your physiology (crying, getting the chills, laughing) often points toward your instinct for meaning; you must notice and file these moments away.

Your future self depends on it.

For me, it was the finish line of my first 100 mile race.

The 6 weeks leading up to my first 100 mile ultra marathon, the Burning River 100, an Achilles injury left me running a frightfully low 7 times.

That’s right: 7 runs.

And none of those were longer than 5 miles.

I ran less than 35 miles in the 6 weeks leading up to my first 100.

And when I crossed that finish line 8 minutes before the final cut-off, my pain and nausea and fatigue was only paled by the massive feeling of accomplishment despite probability.

“If I could do that, what else am I capable of?”

This question captivated me. I saw the Taller Peak (have you seen it?) and knew my direction. The question morphed into some exploration of my mind and body and our natural world, and a desire to inspire people to inspire themselves through radical challenge and commitment.

That’s the path I’m on.

It started with war stories bringing tears to my eyes and sending patriotic shudders down my back. I didn’t ignore those emotions; I continued to admire and study men and women of incredible bravery and commitment. When one David Goggins, whom I had followed since his rise to ultra marathon significance, asked the question “Why haven’t you done it yet?” I responded by signing up for an ultra marathon.

Those decisions, pandering to some primordial instinct for meaning and fulfillment, were the first steps to crossing the finish line at Burning River.

I have a responsibility to some future-me, some strong and fast and kind and community-driven runner of miles and writer of words, miles and words I know will help me answer one simple question: “What else am I capable of?”

If I don’t answer that question, if I had ignored David’s, or if I had disregarded my admiration of bravery and courage in the line of duty, my present life would look much different.

I sit here, writing this article, glad I had not ignored my instinct for meaning.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail…

Click Here to read about Shawn Livingston’s path toward meaning and his mission. WARNING: Extreme Inspiration Likely.

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3 Lessons of a 100 Mile DNF

3 Lessons From Quitting at Mile 70

I was 8 minutes shy of the 30-hour cut off.

It was not how I imagined finishing my first 100 mile ultra marathon.

I pictured gritting my teeth, conquering, and smiling across the finish line of that point-to-point race from Cleveland to Akron, the Burning River 100.

I didn’t expect to cry, fall asleep peeing, and utter the words I can’t in the nighttime darkness of some cornfield.

“Try to run a bit here.”

I can’t.

My first 100 mile ultra marathon took from me what I didn’t know I had and showed me what I didn’t know I was missing. It was anxiety at the starting line, confidence on the daytime towpath, and then fear of the nighttime single-track.

But I did it. [click here to read about it. Hint: I was unprepared]

And I was eager to do it again.

So, what went wrong?

Why did I DNF my second 100 mile race, the Umstead 100 in Raleigh, North Carolina, 8 months later?

I blamed myself –as I should have—but when my hazy mind cleared, I finally made sense of the whole thing. I drew it out, watched myself say the words I’m done, and came to terms with what went wrong.

Most people point to nutrition, cold, or poor training.

Many will call out the terrain, their nagging injury, or some supernatural calling to drop out.

It just wasn’t my day.

You have to know when to quit.

I made the right decision.

At the Umstead 100, I made the wrong decision. 8 months later, I have finally organized that Moment of Quit in my mind. Here’s three things I learned:

1. Prove Nothing

Pride.

I remember the night before the race I joked proudly about being ready for a sub-24 hour performance. I could taste it after my 8:21 run at the Light 2 Light 50. I knew I was fast enough, and I knew I had the right mindset.

Didn’t I have the right mindset?

I think the better question is: Did my mindset line up with my preparation and focus?

That’s the better question. The answer? No, my mindset did not line up with my preparation and focus.

Had I realized that simple fact, I might not have dropped.

Realize that fact before your race: the best question is to ask if your goal, your mindset, lines up with your preparation and focus. And if it does not, adjust your mindset; challenge your preparation and focus on race day, do not amplify their readiness and push your pride to a point of no return.

My Preparation

This is an easy one.

Umstead was the first week of April. The first week of March, I ran the Belmonte 50 in the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. One month earlier, in February, I won the Light 2 Light 50 mile race on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

“You were prepared!” I just heard you say.

False; I was prepared to put miles on my legs, sure, but not to PR at the 100 mile distance by five hours. Had I accepted a finishing time of whatever my body goes for, I would have finished. Instead, I held my goal of 24 hours firm. It was fragile and soft; it wasn’t ready for fulfillment. My firm grip weakened it.

My second and third 50 mile races –Belmonte and Light 2 Light– torched my legs. I needed recovery time, not a 100 mile race with a huge goal at stake, only one month away.

Umstead could have been a stepping-stone to my 24 hour goal. Instead, I decided it was this moment, and only this moment. When the moment of fruition passed with nausea and twitching cramps, I lost focus.

My race became a shameful plod entertaining imaginary voices:

Shouldn’t he be doing better?

He said 24 hours. I don’t know about that anymore.

He’s moving slow.

I realize now, however, my focus was lost before I toed the line and before those voices started chiming through the trees.

My focus

I won’t bore you with details of my nutrition the night before (though I think I described it on my Umstead 100 race report). It wasn’t unhealthy options that drew my focus; it was quantity and conversation. Lost in hanging out with family and friends, I did not plan. I did not plan my dinner or my super-food smoothie or the cleansing juices I’d drink before bed.

I did not plan. I ate. A lot.

My focus, with laughs and food and light conversation and speculations of grandeur, moved away from the massive challenge before me.

Did my mindset, my contemplation of that 24 hour finish time, line up with my focus?

No.

Had it, I would have paid grave attention to my eating and drinking, to overconsumption. The issues of poor nutrition compounded overnight, into race morning, and along that gravel trail.

I was sick from mile 6 to 70.

Nutrition was not the issue; focus determined my drop.

Focus lost the night before and a goal unsupported by preparation, my mind rattled with doubts and insecurities. We’re supposed to take care of these in training, doubts and insecurities. Explore fatigue and pain, train when it’s inconvenient, and lose yourself in that Taller Peak. Drag doubts with you on those tough hill workouts; bring your insecurities to the weight room and pound them out.

Harden your mind to the voices of quit, the ghouls of ease and comfort, and leave pride at the starting line.

You don’t have to quit.

You have to walk. You have to crawl. You have to exist in the pain.

You have to leave pride at the starting line.

Isn’t that why you came here?

2. Change Your Narrative

You’re tough.

Are you ready to find out how tough?

Are you tough enough?

Let’s find out; let’s transport you to mile 70 of your 100 mile race. It’s cold, wet, and your stomach is turning with nausea. You hamstring is torched and your hip flexors struggle up the loose gravel climbs.

But I’m tough!

This was my message to any voices of doubt: I’m tough!

And I suppose I am. But aren’t there times in life when being tough, or hard, or badass, is not enough? I didn’t learn this lesson at Burning River. 8 months later at Umstead, when the pain and fatigue and miles stacked up in front of me, I asked myself if I was tough.

George, are you tough?

Yes.

Then, a voice whispered through the trees: So what?

This shook my will: So what if you’re tough? You’re not this tough! Have you felt this pain, this nausea, this fatigue before? I think not! You might be tough, but I am tougher.

It was the race, whispering through its own pine trees and along its own trail.

How tough are you George? You aren’t this tough! the race would whisper as I cramped up, or stumbled over a root, or sat shaking in a porta-potty.

I was living the Tough Narrative.

Don’t live the tough narrative; it’s a sham, a lie of culture, that toughness equates success in hardship. There are plenty of tough guys and gals out there running ultra marathons, running the race of life, and venturing down their own Wicked Trails. If toughness is your ally, your well of strength, there will be a race, an event, a hardship, that punches you in the face and questions just how tough you really are.

That event for me was the Umstead 100.

It didn’t matter why or how or when the event went wrong.

It went wrong.

My toughness had never been tested in the ways Umstead went wrong. And toughness never can be perfectly vetted; the combinations and situations life might throw at a person negates a person’s well of toughness. It simply does not matter how tough you are.

It took me months to realize this simple fact.

How tough you are does not matter.

What does matter?

Your endurance.

I don’t mean physiological adaptation of training.

I mean your willingness to endure.

I mean your voluntary commitment to the finish line.

I mean your patience.

I mean your mind’s decision to exist in pain.

Do not fight through pain. Do not push it aside. Do not smile through it or grit your teeth or become some depleted victim of discomfort.

Exist in the pain. Acknowledge its purpose in your pursuit, its promotion of your spirit in the direction of the person you are called to be.

Pain is a wicked teacher. He shows us our shortcomings and puts our anxieties on display for everyone to see. It brings out frowns and tears and impatient outbursts.

Do not be a victim to pain. Exist in the pain and carry on toward the finish line without hurry or expectation of relief. If you expect relief, or some escape, the miles will weigh on your fatigued mind.

Exist in the pain.

Thank yourself for voluntary commitment to challenge and look forward to the person who will come out the other side.

3. A Different Patience

I’ve written about patience before. It’s paramount to success in training, on race day, and in general satisfaction with life. Impatient people can’t run 100 mile races. The training and preparation, the reliance on others, and the pain (see above) create a distance molded in exclusivity.

It’s not for everyone.

I thought I knew patience, this ticket to the starting and finish line of ultra marathon distance events.

The Umstead 100 taught me a new lesson in patience.

My goal for the year 2019 was to cover 100 miles in 24 hours. I trained well and won the Light 2 Light 50 miler, a flat and fast road race, with a time of 8:21. One month later, in March, I ran a mountainous double marathon in just under 13 hours.

With as much elevation gain and loss as the entire Umstead 100, I still thought a sub-24 hour race was on the table.

It wasn’t. And I shouldn’t have gambled my entire race-satisfaction on that benchmark.

Three races of at least 50 miles in three months was a lot for a relatively new ultra marathon runner. Had I acknowledged my expected fatigue and muscular breakdown, I might have approached Umstead as a slow and intentional training run for a sub-24 hour attempt later in the year.

I might have stayed healthy and finished the race with an eager and distance-acquainted mind, unencumbered by the deadly pride that left me doubtful and insecure.

One month later, on May 4, I ran 87 miles at the Outrun 24 hour in Cleveland, Ohio.

4 races in as many months, and my goal remained far out of reach up my personal mountain.

My legs and feet were beat; my sense of ability and optimism were damaged.

It wasn’t easy to take stock of what went wrong.

I see now how a castle is built. It’s not rushed for fear of some unseen enemy. It’s not built with bloody hands and fatigued troops. It’s built with intentionally placed blocks, not a dumping of bricks and stones into a pile, hoping some land in the right place.

Veteran ultra marathon runners have the legs and feet and lungs for exceptional feats. New runners (and I am talking to myself here), take your time. Be patient in your goals and build intentionally, knowing that to summit the mountain, your must be well-rested, have strong legs and callused feet. You must have been on the mountain for some time, and with some direction and purpose.

Do not look for the summit your first week, month, or year.

Climb on, and be patient.

A New Mountain

Five races in four months (I forgot to mention a trail marathon one week after Outrun 24 Hour, which was one month after dropping from Umstead) left me scrambling along a shale ridge, precariously close to a steep drop off the mountain of my goal. Rushing back into training, impatient to get another race in before the year expired, knocked me right off.

Here I am four months into a medical running hiatus, eager to lace up and start back up the mountain and thankful for healing. I learned some things and earned some medals in those 5 races from February to May, and –though it’s hard to say out loud—I would not go back and change anything.

The stacking of races, the dropping from Umstead, and the injury that followed too much running for a novice ultra marathon runner taught me some invaluable lessons to carry forward on my Wicked Trail.

Isn’t that why we run these races?

I peruse UltraSignUp nearly once per week, searching for a comeback race, a first step toward my goal of 100 miles in 24 hours. I won’t rush into it. I won’t neglect the rest and growth between races. I might do some 100 mile races with no goal before another attempt. I will be patient.

I might not be tough, and I might not take any expectations into the races that follow this period of healing, but my goals don’t require those things.

They only ask that I wait in the pain. They ask that I not push through it or search for relief. They ask that I align my focus and preparation with my goal. They ask that I ignore voices of doubt and insecurity, and leave pride at the starting line.

They ask, and I have my answer.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail…

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Afraid to Run That Ultra Marathon?

Afraid to run ultra marathon

Fear is a jester. He dances around the hall of greatness and mocks passersby, planting doubts and insecurities in the minds of those peeking in. He sings of their shortcomings; he jokes about their failures. His greatest trick is keeping people away from the hall of greatness.

Fear’s greatest trick is convincing you to lead a boring, unexplored life.

Have you peeked into the hall of greatness lately?

Open yourself to the physical, emotional, and mental harvest afforded you. There is no other person on Earth with your talents, skills, and experiences; peek in that hall.

Ask yourself: Today, what can I accomplish for the fruition of my goal? What physical storms can I weather? How can I detach from my emotions and calm my society-induced anxious mind? Where are my thoughts taking me?

Fear is a jester. He dances around that hall of greatness and strums an anxious tune, one born of a society infatuated with opinion and comparison. Fear wants you to compare; he wants you to form opinions.

Comparison and opinions are a soil perfect for the growth of doubts and insecurities.

See those people! Why aren’t you like them? Are you working hard enough? Are you good enough?

Fear has you. You peeked into that hall of greatness and stepped inside. Unfortunately, you fell for his tricks.

You’ve fallen for his comparison; commitment to your path crumbles as your mind dances from person to person, desiring what they have and who they are.

He’s roped you into impatient debate, a conversation of distracted minds, a mindless scrolling through social media profiles of status and influence and achievement.

Fear is a jester.

Cut his throat.

“Why haven’t you done it yet?”

I signed up for a 50 mile race before any other distance. I skipped the marathon, half-marathon, 5K and 10K, and any Turkey Trot or Fun Run in between.

It was a Rich Roll podcast featuring David Goggins that left me browsing popular race sites like UltraSignUp, biting my nails as my imagination painted me on some mountainous trail with a colorful bib pinned to my shirt. David mentioned how people often say to him: I would love to complete Badwater one day!

His response to those people?

Why haven’t you done it yet?

His question changed my life: Why haven’t you done it yet?

The next day I registered for an ultra marathon of 50 miles, having never ran more than 10 miles in one go. I left no time for thought, comparison, research (seriously, I was unprepared), or the opinions of others. What would they matter? The only thing I saw was that hall of greatness, of exploration and growth, and Fear lurking around, waiting to trick me into that boring and unexplored life.

Hold on, Fear would say. Let’s think about this. Why not ask someone what they think? Why not train for some time and see how it goes?

I had to cut his throat; there was no room for comparison and opinions, for clicking through websites filled with statistics and numbers and stories.

I wanted my own stories, numbers, and stats.

This is a lesson I carry with me now: the time for thought and analysis is gone. How am I spending my time? What actions am I putting off? What pursuits am I leaving to others, those I see as more capable or in a better position?

Why haven’t you done it yet?

Pursue your goal, that peak in the distance, with a strange vigor. Let it illuminate your thoughts, conversations, and training sessions. Don’t let it slide for Fear, for his tricky tune of comparison and opinions.

Get after it. It is yours to have.

Sign up for that farther distance. Challenge yourself with a time-goal. Commit to a long, patience-testing program for the sake of your health and performance.

Don’t leave those things for someone else.

Peek in that hall of greatness.

Why haven’t you yet?

Click Here to read another quick and thought-provoking post…

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So Long, And Thanks For The Suffering

Thanks For The Suffering Ultra Marathon Blog Michael Moran

Written By Michael Moran

I chose to do this.

Nobody forced me to run 50 miles.

Pouring sweat into a paper cup of Gatorade three quarters of the way through the race, I felt like I was about to cave inward. The weight of the last few months, the heat, my wet and muddy feet, and the physical toll of this race brought me to an edge I hadn’t felt before. I was losing sight of my why.  I thought it was about adventure, accomplishment, and identity, but that turned out to be wrong.

I chose the Pineland Farms 50 miler because of a lifetime-love of playing in the woods of Maine. Maine is nicknamed “Vacation Land” for the hundreds of miles of bucolic back roads, cow pastures, and impossibly lush, dark woods. It’s the ideal setting for long backpacking trips, camping, or stargazing.  When I signed up for this race in November of 2018, I booked a campsite and spent the winter dreaming of starry night skies and bonfires, good beer, and a chance to connect with other ultra runners.

I thought about a terrifying goal and that I was ready to go for it

The night before the race, a few runners huddled around a hissing fire, which was fighting against light rain.

A pleasant couple, Paul and Carol-Ann, joined me by the fire and we started chatting. They were there to watch their son race the 50 miler. Paul’s friendly face poked out of his rain jacket like it was just perched on top of his rounded body. He had a magnetic kindness and openness, which pulled everyone gathered toward him.

Paul’s experience in ultra marathons, if not for his knowledge, would have been given away by his Western States belt buckle barely hidden under his belly. In fact, this Paul was Paul Days-Merrill, winner of the 1996 Vermont 100. When the gravity of my company became clear, the conversation became a frenetic series of my training questions and his stories about ultra races. We spent the evening talking about the sport and its evolution. We chatted about flat coke, Doritos, and fanny packs. We discussed Gordy and Walmsley. His incongruous identity shifted through the night and I could almost see that young ultra runner standing in front of me.  He pulled me into conversation in a way that welcomed me to a club of eccentricity that few people understand. Our conversation lasted until rain and the clock forced us to our tents for the night.  I was about to become part of his pack; I was fired up and couldn’t sleep. I laid in my tent, listening to the sound of heavy rain, thinking about the adventure of the following day.

I did not think about what that rain meant for the trails. 

The Narrative

The rain left deep, murky mud puddles in the cow pastures used for the course. The only way to deal with them was to slog through –up to your ankles— and hope your shoes didn’t fill with mud. The looped course sent us back through the same slog over and over.

By the time I reached the 50 kilometer (31.07 miles) mark, I was feeling intense fatigue from lifting burnt quads against the mud’s sticky resistance. In addition, the course markings were off by a few miles; the mental game was on.

I felt frustration and defeat.

I could barely run faster than a trot with the mud and hills.

The miles felt like quicksand. Thick black sludge suctioned my feet and pulled me under. My hammered quads and burned out glutes fought stiffly to rise out of the sludge. 

My first 50 miler would be a walk.

For some reason, this bruised my ego and seemed to dull my energy further. The sun baked mercilessly on me and my soaked shirt. I have always been mentally tough, and I have struggled in races before. Why was this feeling different? I had to stop for a few moments at an aide station in order to get my shit together.

I thought about where I was in my life and my context. I was beaten down before I even got to the starting line of this race; I needed to look at myself in the mirror. This race, as it turned out, was as much about what I was looking to find inside of my mind as what my body could do. 

In the spring of 2019, just before the race, I found myself in the crosshairs of three massive moments in my life. I was finalizing a divorce from a person I spent 16 years with, selling my first home, and tapering for my first 50 mile race. The pressure of uncertainty, instability and emotional pain mingled with brutal self-talk and taper anxieties.

Three in the morning became the worst time. Sleep was needed with my training build-up for the race, but my brain wanted to do a full review of my resume of mistakes since 1982. By the time my alarm sounded each morning, I was already suffering with physical and emotional fatigue. My family had mostly moved out of the state the year before and I was almost always alone.  I found myself closing off from the world around me. 

Through this period of instability and emotional vulnerability, I continued my practice of writing down five things I am grateful for each morning. I thrive on stability and routine; on painful mornings, with the help of my best friend, a woman I love very much, I clenched my teeth and grunted out that I was thankful for her and black coffee. Despite her living in Arizona and me living in Massachusetts, she texts me like a sunrise every morning: “Gimme those gratitudes!” Often, forcing myself to think deeper, I reminded myself about the obvious ones: my daughter, my family, a roof over my head, my fitness or my best friend.

Yet, in all of my daily gratitudes, I never stopped to thank my suffering. I showed gratitude for overcoming obstacles, my achievements, and my victories, but never just raw pain. 

We are all the product of a lifetime of choices and events. It’s fair to think that the “positive” choices we make are the ones to attribute toward our identity or success. This is my success narrative: going to college, choosing a healthy diet, mindfulness meditation and daily gratitude, a daily commitment to fitness, seven hours of sleep, high effort in my career, a history of solid performance in running. This narrative is why I claim to be successful.

It’s easy to show gratitude for a successful narrative because these paths ease tension and optimize my life.

Conversely, we attribute our obstacles and pain to success with a grit-based narrative.

I overcame adversity through grit, I shoved the bullshit aside and got tough, I got away from that destructive situation. No pain, no gain! I toiled for that outcome. These are my identity and, just like the success narrative, have a positive spin. They rely on overcoming tension between situation and goals. We need grit and it’s easy to feel gratitude toward a mindset that drives us forward through passion and intensity, despite the obstacles.

Yet, when we are actively in a moment of suffering, and we feel defeated –not particularly gritty, or tough, and like we want to break—how can we feel gratitude? We are inside suffering and haven’t met the goal. We see no way out of the current pain and struggle and are flooded with uncertainty. How can we feel gratitude in this?

Why feel gratitude for this? 

No Narrative: Gratitude

“Smile! even when you don’t want to” is some of the best advice I’ve heard. Instead of allowing defeat and discomfort to take control at mile 38 and feed a failure narrative of how my whole life has been a mess, and how life has kicked me in the teeth, I smiled.

I smiled to accept the pain. I tried to embrace it and cherish it. It wasn’t going to kill me or make me stronger. It was just going to hurt. I needed to hurt; that’s a part of this experience too. 

Instead of feeding thoughts about my failed relationship, an uncertain future, the loss of my first home, my loved ones living thousands of miles away, or worrying about my daughter, those voices which were starting to bark in my ear, I smiled.

The pendulum swung back and I was in misery again. Screw this, I’m not going to do this mindfulness bullshit because this pain actually sucks. Mindfulness can feel insulting in real pain. Say thank you for this? No, fuck you

Thanking the suffering took me out of the participation in the suffering and let me observe it. I allowed the present moment to be painful, held, and observed. Suffering itself has a place at the table.

The pendulum went again toward gratitude; I allowed it in.

Thank you, suffering. I am lucky to have you in my life.

It wasn’t a grit-based narrative, or a success-based narrative; it was in true gratitude for the pain. I didn’t imagine overcoming it. I didn’t tell myself I was strong and brave and that I could do this. I didn’t tell myself that I was mentally tough or any number of positive-narrative spins. I didn’t pat myself on the back for running an ultra. I just thanked the suffering. It was good stuff.

I saw Paul at an aide station cheering for the runners and I got a boost. I remembered last night’s fiery conversation about this sport and the people who do it. It’s all about discomfort and hard work. You don’t win the Vermont 100 without suffering at some point on the way to victory. Suffering is a mindset to lovingly embrace. 

There was no more tension, and my mind stopped spiraling. I didn’t force it to happen, and I didn’t magically stop hurting; it just no longer was a source of tension. The pain was very real. The emotional turmoil was still there, but it was all being held and accepted, observed and appreciated.

It was the reason I was there. I was getting what I came for.

After this, I started to run again. Now that the suffering was allowed, and even embraced, I was ok. I was able to turn the volume up on that grit-based inner dialogue and put my head down. I wasn’t gritting through pain; I had accepted it and could work with it in order to finish.  I stopped complaining about the mile markers and the mud. That was some good suffering, too.

I allowed everything to be what it was –even suffering—and I pounded my destroyed legs to the finish.

I smiled and I meant it.

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Shawn Livingston: Be Somebody’s Pacer

Be Somebody's Pacer

100 Miles to Redemption | Trailer from Pipeline Films on Vimeo.

Woke The Monster

“He’s a lazy, lying, lost, hopeless drug addict,” Shawn Livingston says, reflecting on the colors with which he painted his adulthood. It started as the life of a partier, just an addiction to a good time.

Drug abuse and alcoholism, taking root slowly in late nights and over-prescribed pain killers, became habitual. Good times rolled into bad habits; bad habits became dangerous routines.

Did you make it to work today?

Do you have gas in your car?

Yes? Good.

When he tried to get off pain medications, prescribed for his hurt back, “It woke up The Monster.”

The Monster fed on pain pills and when those became too expensive, heroin.

His family turned their backs which, Shawn says, they had every right to do. The Monster wrapped its gnarled hand around Shawn and wedged itself between he and those who once looked up to him as a proud member of the Armed Forces.

Hopeless, and without purpose, Shawn racked up four felonies and a DWI.

The fourth felony, the one that nearly landed Shawn 15 years in prison, saved his life.

Stay True

My first visit with Shawn in Austin, Texas, I asked him about his knuckle tattoos.

“They’re a little aggressive,” he jokes.

His knuckle tattoos read ‘Stay True,’ a phrase as deep as it is obvious. Shawn inked ‘Stay True’ into his knuckles shortly before the crushing blow of that 15 year sentence.

His lawyer looked at him that afternoon and said, hollowly, “What do you want me to do? They got you.”

Shawn had one request, one dying wish, before spending 15 years behind bars. He’d be almost 50 years old before he was a free man.

“Let me get clean before I go.”

Shawn’s family had been replaced by The Monster, and he wanted them back. If he could get clean before going away, he’d have someone to write him letters. Without his family’s love, Shawn knew he would waste away behind bars.

“Why did you get that tatted on your knuckles?”

Shawn explained that Stay True is a testament to the loss he incurred in addiction. He lost a huge part of his young adult life and would never get it back. Stay True is a reminder, for him, that every day will be a test of his resolve, his recovery and health. He has to Stay True to the kid, the young man who joined the military, who had dreams and goals and love and passion; he had to rediscover his best and commit to living as that person.

The alternative was mental deterioration and death at the hands of prescribed and illegal drug abuse.

Ultra marathon running (Shawn has finished multiple ultra marathons up to 100 miles) and working with others gave Shawn a front-row seat at his own transcendence of the person addiction created. He returned to the truth of who he is, who we are all called to be, in adventure and experience.

We are all called to Stay True to that person, our best, the one free in adventure and experience.

Be Somebody’s Pacer

In staying true to the truth of who he is in adventure, challenge, and experience, Shawn transcended the person addiction created.

In ultra marathon running, Shawn became a new person.

In working with others, those trapped behind the same bars of alcoholism and drug abuse that once imprisoned Shawn, he found his purpose.

It’s a purpose every single person, endurance athlete and otherwise, can grasp and use to change his or her life.

Be Somebody’s Pacer.

In the late hours of an ultra marathon, a pacer can change a person’s race.

It’s a shot of espresso: Conversation, shared miles, and a friend to keep the runner’s compass pointing toward the finish line.

A good pacer can be the difference between belt buckle and DNF.

At Shawn’s first 100 mile race, the Pinhoti 100, he realized the gravity of that friendly voice in the darkness. A fellow runner became his pacer, a lighthouse that steered his mind from negativity and pain toward “I am not alone in these!”

That’s when it hit Shawn.

He needed a pacer to show him a healthy path out of addiction.

[You’ll have to ask him yourself how he discovered trail running: follow Shawn on Instagram @iam_shawnlivingston]

He needed a pacer that night in Alabama, when negativity and pain crept into his exhausted mind.

And now, coming from the pit of hopelessness that is addiction and conquering his Wicked Trail at Pinhoti 100, Shawn has committed himself to Be Somebody’s Pacer in living as a symbol of hope for at-risk youth and men in the same treatment facility where he recovered his health.

Shawn, in telling and continuing to live his story of perseverance through challenge, reminds these young people and recovering addicts that people have sat in those chairs and risen to confront adversity and hopelessness.

Others, like Shawn, tattooed with a record of self-neglect and a forgotten truth, who now smile and laugh and breathe deeply, thankful for life and blue skies.

And, of course, rugged trails.

At the finish line of the 2019 Texas Switchback Trail Marathon outside Austin, I stood with Shawn and watched as multiple men who, upon close inspection, appeared out of place at an athletic event, came and embraced Shawn or shook hands and spoke inaudibly.

“Those are guys from the treatment center,” he said.

That’s when I saw it: Shawn is no longer living his own story. His impact is beyond what social media sees and what news reports cover. It’s real. It’s men and at-risk youth seeing a model for climbing the ominous mountain in front of them. Men and kids, left on the sideline of society, who see someone playing the game and smiling, splashing through streams and smiling up steep hills, heart pounding and shirt soaked through.

Shawn pulls men from the chairs of hopeless addiction and puts them into a pair of running shoes. They might look out of place, but they are right where they belong. Just ask Shawn.

Be Somebody’s Pacer.

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