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 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.