Heroes and Tweets

“If you ever catch yourself describing someone’s effort in an optional running competition as ‘heroic,’ consult a dictionary.”

This sentiment jumped out at me one day as I mindlessly perused the social media time toilet (except, isn’t all social media a time toilet?) that is Twitter. I stumbled upon this aforementioned Tweet the same night where, earlier, while eating dinner with two work colleagues, the subject of Tiger Woods’ recent DUI came up, along with the topic of Michael Phelps getting busted for pot a few years ago.

“We really put all those guys on a pedestal,” one of the guys I was with remarked.

And it’s true, we put them on a pedestal, make them our “heroes”, and then they can do no wrong as far as we’re concerned. And if they do, all of our minds are blown and it’s like this huge scandal. But it got me wondering, and certainly not for the first time, but why? Why do we make any athlete or athletic endeavor out to be somehow heroic? Sure, most athletic feats—whether it’s the outrageous ability to endure prolonged extreme discomfort and the endlessly repetitive training that comes with endurance sports, or the astonishing agility and precision acquired from years of honing the proprioception and hand-eye coordination necessary to succeed in many other sports—are really impressive. But, at the end of the day, what does it really do for anybody else? Why do we laud people at the top of the game, any game really, as supposed heroes?

Now, this “pedestal phenomenon” I suppose I will call it, is perhaps a post for another day given that although it’s related, in this case it’s slightly off topic (me? Off topic? Never!). For now, the question remains: is there anything heroic about any athletic pursuit?

It would seem so, as much as we hero-worship the most successful among athletes. You don’t have to spend all that much time in any sport, at any level, to catch of glimpse of this. But none of this really entered my mind until a few years ago when, following a good mountain season, Joe Gray, Allie McLaughlin, and myself were awarded the “Spirit of Colorado Springs” award, and by the mayor no less! And I remember standing there after awkwardly (awkwardness in social situations is to be expected from me, naturally) shaking the mayor’s hand, holding this super rad glass plaque, and thinking it was all pretty cool and all, but also sort of thinking, “Um, what?” I mean, we all ran up a few good-sized hills pretty adeptly, but none of us could boast of saving babies or kittens from burning buildings. Unless there is something about Joe or Allie that I don’t know. They’re both pretty great, so there very well might be. So maybe I should just speak for myself there actually. No rescued babies or kittens or otherwise noble deeds on my end, sorry.

Anyway, that incident is obviously quite miniscule and nowhere near the scope of the athletic accomplishments of many of those whom we slap the “hero” label upon after their latest and greatest seemingly inhuman feat, but you get the idea.

In any case, circling back around the present and my mindless perusal of Twitter. It’s possible I took this particular Tweet a bit out of context, but regardless, stumbling upon it immediately following the previously mentioned dinner conversation got the gears turning upstairs, and I decided to follow the instructions conveyed within said Tweet, and consult a dictionary to perhaps better grasp this word, “heroic,” to better determine if any of us who voluntarily subject ourselves to self-induced suffering in the form of running, are really ever deserving of such a description.

He-ro-ic

Adjective

  • Having the characteristics of a hero or heroine; very brave.

This definition then necessitated that I look up the word “hero”.

He-ro

Noun    

  • A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.
  • A submarine sandwich.

Sandwiches aside, for the most part these definitions do indeed aptly describe a lot of seemingly inhuman humans who dominate the sporting world, and even those who don’t but who maybe broke through a bunch of their own barriers to achieve something great they never dreamed of, even if it was something as humble as breaking five hours in a marathon, or the one time pack-a-day smoker who now runs 100 mile ultra-marathons in respectable times. There is, after all, something about being willing to very intentionally step far—very, very far–out of your comfort zone to see what you’re capable of doing, that brings the word “courageous” to the forefront of my mind.

IMG_2625

Heroic? I think yes.

But nonetheless, I still absolutely get what Tweeter McTweety is getting at. To be quite honest, there is a certain something that bothers me to some extent, to see this or that Flavor of the Week athlete being hoisted upon a pedestal, thrust into the limelight, and touted as a hero for doing something like running far or swimming fast or hitting a ball. Heroic? Regardless of the level, is it really? I mean, back in the day, a hero was the knight that saved the village and all of the damsels in distress from the fire breathing dragon, not somebody who ran fast around an oval quite literally going nowhere fast.

But conversely, and I can only speak of the running world given that’s all I really pay attention to, there is also something that makes your hair stand on end just a little bit seeing somebody battle it out and win at the highest levels, where you can tell that the battle is just as much internally with themselves as it is externally with the rest of the field. There is something, yes, heroic about their efforts.

IMG_2627

Tonia Smith…look her up. Heroic? You better believe it.

I do however, tend to see more real heroism down the ladder a few rungs, not always necessarily in the realm of the super-elite, but in a lot of folks who’ve successfully run from (or perhaps with) their demons, slayed their dragons, and conquered their mountains, so to speak. I know a number of folks like that, and I’d absolutely say they’re my heroes. This is however less because of their running feats, even though they are in and of themselves quite impressive, and more because of the platform that they’ve inadvertently used their running for, which is, more often than not, essentially to give a big “F*CK YOU” to some circumstance or other that has effectively stacked the odds against them and rendered it so that perhaps they really don’t have all that much business doing what they’re doing, and they have shown that, come what may, you can choose to frankly not give a damn and go for it anyway, letting the chips fall where they may. Oftentimes, bearing witness to those feats is all the impetus that’s needed to get us through our own rough patches in life.

So I suppose that after chewing on this for a bit (a “bit” being about 1,200 words now), I’d conclude from my own ridiculous musings that there is absolutely a certain degree of heroism that you see, at all levels, in the athlete realm, regardless of the fact that any suffering experienced as a result is definitely voluntary and sought out.

I don’t necessarily deem somebody who just *wins-wins-wins* all the time as being “heroic” just for the sole reason of notching all of those victories. As much as I admire their consistency and hard work, I certainly don’t see them as worthy of being idolized and placed on a pedestal, although it seems to be human nature to do that to anybody achieving seemingly impossible things, even when they didn’t ask for such admiration, which they very often don’t. Ultimately, they’re just another person with a God-given talent that they discovered, chose to hone to a fine point, and then got some luck and opportunity along the way. I think it’s more what they end up conveying to the world through this particular ability that determines “heroism.”

That said, I do see truly genuine heroism in people who, often unintentionally, use their athletic achievements, regardless of how great or humble, as a platform to convey a much larger, and often unspoken, message. Those are the people whose success I like following the most. Flowery as it sounds, there often isn’t enough inspiration out there nowadays, and there aren’t a lot of literal dragons to slay, so we have to take what we can get where we can get it. In any given race, you usually don’t have to look far.

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Mic drop.

Oodles of Uphill

The latter half of May heralds my favorite season of the year: Oodles of Uphill Season!

Yes, on the docket for Oodles of Uphill Season this year are the Black Canyon Ascent, which was last Saturday, Mt. Washington in a bit over three weeks, Vail Hill Climb in early July, followed by the Rendezvous Hillclimb in Jackson Hole later in the month to, um, warm up for the Pikes Peak Ascent later in August, then Mt. Baldy in California on Labor Day, followed by the Boulder Mountain Marathon (the 10 mile ascent part of it) at some point in September.

Told you there was oodles of uphill. Yay.

Black Canyon was…a surprise that maybe I shouldn’t have that been surprised by. I managed to work the race into a work trip on one of my (many) favorite loops in the territory: Buena Vista to Salida to Gunnison to Crested Butte back down to Montrose then out to Grand Junction then back down through Montrose out to Telluride and Ouray. I like to use Montrose as a little hub to do trips out to Telluride and Ouray as well as Grand Junction if I’m not coming from the Vail direction, and Black Canyon sits right on the outskirts of town, so it worked.

Tech rep or paid vagrant? It’s a toss-up!

Ouray

Just outside of Ouray: this is why Colorado is neat.

Anyway, despite the warm spring weather in the weeks preceding the race, we got a nice little spring blizzard of sorts the couple of days before, and even though it cleared off, race day was a chilly one. I always like going out to Black Canyon because it’s like little reunion of People Who Only Like to Run Up Things. I warmed up with Simon Gutierrez, Mary Baldwin, Josh Eberly, and CJ Hitz, and unfortunately Brandy Erholtz was down for the count with a stomach bug, Kim Dobson had a baby three weeks ago, Neal and Amy McDonagh also had a recent visit from the stork, and Peter Maksimow is nursing an injury. So the reunion was smaller than normal.

After all was said and done, I finished a measly four seconds off of my best time there and well, it buoyed me a up bit and was even sort of a relief in a way. After sort of just lollygagging around for the better part of 2016 running-but-not-really-training, I got pretty amped to learn that “it” may just still be in there. A great many of my battles are mental ones (do we even need to go there? No sir, we do not.) and I always wonder if I’m doing enough or not enough or straight up doing it wrong. Doing the ol’ lone wolf thing as far as training goes–which I’ve always enjoyed because it takes a certain sort of stress out of it and also really appeals to the introvert side of myself–definitely comes with the caveat of having to keep yourself honest, and you only really have yourself and your own feelings and experiences to gauge off of, for better or for worse. So, to know I wasn’t too terribly far off the mark made me pretty happy.

BCA

The “podium.”

But, I’m not really into talking a good game, anybody can do that. Talk is cheap as we all know. It was one race after all, and just a little guy. Mt. Washington will be a lot more telling, with my only goal being to bring my very best A-Game and let the chips fall where they may. Whatever happens, it will be a great day on the mountain, it always is.

It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time

Sometimes you’ve gotta get real with yourself.

You know, I think that it’s like, you “enter your thirties” and just like that, you’re old(er). Just kidding, I still feel quite young and spry, and I still giggle at jokes whose target demographic are 12 year old boys. But as I was saying: just like that, you’re older, and perhaps a bit more comfortable in your own skin and with that, less reluctant to admit things to yourself that you maybe used to deny, because it didn’t fit the mold of who and what you and/or others thought that you were supposed to be.

One of those things that I’ve finally let myself admit to…er…myself, is that with running, I’m now willing to sacrifice success for enjoyment. There. I’ve said it. I would rather enjoy what I’m doing more than I would like to be successful at it. A few years ago, I never would have dreamed of that. I didn’t think twice about going to the track every Tuesday and doing 25×400 or 6 x a mile or 10 x 1k or whatever other godawful broken-up variation of a 10k was on the docket for that day. I had no issue with going to the same Friday location to do a tempo or fartlek run. Whatever it took to lend me the leg-speed for a PR for a race I may or may not have even been looking forward to. Whatever workout was specific to what I was training for: on it. Whether I liked it or not. All those track races I ran during and after college? Yeah, I was only pretending to be excited for them. Lies. All of it.

Now? Yeah, you couldn’t pay me to do any of that stuff unless I felt like it.

Yes. I just owned that.

To clarify, I don’t mean that I’m not willing to do the perhaps less enjoyable and more tedious things that making incremental gains necessitates, I’m simply saying that I’m not willing to sacrifice enjoyment at the altar of Success.

I’m not sure what this mindset is indicative of. Burnout? I doubt it. I will always love running, we have certainly had our highs and lows, likely with more to come, but it’s been good to me over the years and I love it for its own sake and always will, whether I’m competing or not. No, I think it’s more of an acceptance thing. Acceptance of the fact that at the end of the day, I’m doing this because I like it, and any other good things that happen along the way are bonuses. As such, if I have to choose between a race or a workout that I dread, yet is highly beneficial to a goal down the road, versus something that perhaps makes that goal maybe less achievable because of a lack of specificity or what have you, but I’m really looking forward to getting out the door to do it, I’m choosing the latter.

Sometimes, I feel a bit as though I’ve spent a decade and a half eating PB&J for lunch every day, and I just can’t handle PB&J anymore, so I need to either buy different bread, or try chunky rather than creamy peanut butter, or use Nutella or marshmallow fluff instead of peanut butter and omit the jelly altogether, or try that sketchy looking apricot jam rather than always using jelly, or slice up some bananas for that bad boy, or just SOMETHING.

I did try Vegemite instead though once and just about upchucked, so we’re not doing that again.

I think about a few short years ago, being offered a paid sponsorship from a shoe company I adored, and thinking it was a total dream come true. As it turned out, I didn’t run a race for nearly two years after that due to injury so was never able to take advantage of that offer, and I’ve often wondered at how different life would be now had it been in the cards to take that path. But sometimes I also wonder if the grass really would have been greener, or if having obligations to run certain races and a certain number of them and maybe not always exactly what I would have chosen for myself would have made all of this feel like a job? Or like having PB&J shoved down my throat rather than voluntarily force-feeding it to myself. I really can’t answer that without truly knowing if it’s just sour grapes at this point.

That aside, ideally in my Utopian Running Universe, I want to strike a balance where both success and enjoyment happen simultaneously, and where enjoyment doesn’t happen because of success, but independently of it, because enjoyment derived only from success isn’t true enjoyment at all. Success is much more fleeting than enjoyment should be.

My hang-up though is that I’ve often possessed this weird mindset where I feel as though if I am enjoying something, I have to endure something that I hate in order to truly enjoy it. Like in some weird way I feel guilty for enjoying it, or like there should always be a catch to something enjoyable. Love your job? You must be doing it wrong! Wanna eat that entire sleeve of Oreos? Oh heck yes you do! Diabetes comin’ in hot! Had an amazing workout? You might’ve just left your race out there! I don’t know why I think that way. Strict Baptist upbringing perhaps. But bottom line: I don’t want to do crap I don’t like to do anymore, and if that’s not ideal to some end goal but I had a hell of a good time along the way, then so be it.

I realized some of this when I was scrawling out some semblance of a plan to achieve what I would like to in coming months. And I looked at it and just started scratching things off and X-ing out things left and right and just having a real hay-day with my editing thinking, “Yeah this workout worked well before, but it sucked. Sooo…no. This one was mind-numbingly boring, so nope, not doing that either. Do I even like doing this one? Uh, NO. Big line through that one too. And oh hells NO I’m not touching the track, ever again in my life actually, I don’t even care if it makes me a four minute miler and it’s so impressive that somebody starts a doping accusation thread about me on Letsrun! So scratch that one also. Oooh, but THIS one was fun, and this other one was great, and I loooooved that one, and running up that thing over there resulted in the sort of ecstasy that’s usually only obtainable by being licked to smithereens by a puppy! So if I feel like doing it every week for forever, then I’m gonna! So take THAT!”

This also came on the heels of signing up for a bunch of races, but only ones that I liked, and axing any plan to run ones that I just “wanted” to run because I somehow felt like I should run them because I always run them. But doing stuff because you “should” rather than because you want to and are excited about it, makes the occasional temptation to walk away feel just a little too real.

What is it they say? “Man cannot live on bread alone?” Well, runners can’t run on PB&J alone either, I’m coming to find out. Besides, spend too many years eating PB&J’s and what happens if you develop a nut allergy? What happens if you realize that you just plain can’t stand PB&J anymore? You’re just S.O.L. I guess. Because then, it doesn’t really matter if PB&J’s equate to success, you better change it up or you’re a goner.

 

Running and Writing

I like to write things. That fact is likely made clear by the existence of my nonsensical rambling via this blog.

For one thing, writing things down is extremely cathartic. Any positive feelings or negative feelings or really just anything at all that needs to be “dumped,” if you will, out of my brain is quickly purged out by writing them down. Dumping these thoughts out of my head often provides a strange sense of closure for things that I processed and overanalyzed to death and really just need to get rid of. It’s as though the brain is a sponge, and writing wrings out the sponge.

I’m not much of a diary type person, this blog–or perhaps more accurately, “brain dump”– is about as close as I’ll ever come to that, but I’ve always been a running log type person. Super dorky, I know, but dorkiness is expected from me and I have embraced that.

From the time I started running when I was 15, for some reason I’ve felt compelled to write down every run, the approximate mileage, and any noteworthy events or milestones or just thoughts that I had during or about that given run or race, or about any particular events going on at that given time of life: the first time I ran farther than a mile, the first time I made Varsity in cross country, the first time that I lettered, the first time I ever made State in track and how amped I was—may as well have been the Olympics, the first time I ever got actual running shoes and my shin splints went away, a race I got lost in with a gal who later became the state cross country champion where we ended up in someone’s driveway, that one time this boy totally mangled my heart into a trillion pieces and I was so upset about it that I PR’ed in the mile by—no exaggeration–nearly two minutes (thanks, Aaron!), contemplating whether or not I was good enough to run collegiately, the run I went on after signing my letter of intent when I decided to run in college where even with the small scholarship I got they may as well have given me a billion dollars with how stoked I was, making NCAA Nationals, and runs that I went on with people in high school and college and beyond, who later became my best friends and who I still keep in touch with. Yep, wins and losses and everything in between. Like pictures in a photo album, it somehow always seemed important not to forget these things. Funny how much a sport can change the course of your life.

Yep, I’m a sentimental sap.

Most folks upload their stuff to Strava or Movescount (shameless plug, Suunto! You’re welcome.) or wherever, but I use good ol’ fashioned pen and paper. I’ve got volumes of the things in spiral notebooks squirreled away in a drawer spanning all the way back to August of 2001. There are so many runs where, if I re-read what I wrote, I can conjure up the memory of that very run, even if it was a decade and a half ago. Somehow writing it down made it concrete and gave my memory some sort of prompt to recall what happened that run. There is even one entry back when I first started running in ninth grade during cross country season, where I left the encouraging and uplifting annotation of, “I don’t think I’m cut out for this running stuff.”

So now that I’ve laid out the background, on to my actual story and its subsequent cheesy moral.

So my current job basically entails being a paid vagrant. That said, I spend quite a bit of time out on the road, during which I’m always scoping out good potential running spots. In my awesome territory, there are an abundant number of those. On a recent trip to Albuquerque, I parked in the parking lot of a trail that runs along the Rio Grande River that I’ve run several times now, and it’s perfect for putting in good workouts: flat, crushed gravel, and I believe it spans about 18 miles. In any case, on this particular day I returned from said workout to find the car–with all of its Salomon and Suunto contents–well, not there.

Let me intersperse my story with some fun statistics real quick: did you know that Albuquerque leads the nation in auto theft? Did you know that one car is stolen every 60 seconds? Yes, it’s true! I learned these stats later from the cop who helped me out.

Anyway, so here I am, standing in this empty parking lot trying to recall if I did in fact park here, acknowledging that, yes I did, and being remarkably not at all panicked about the situation because all I could think about was, boom! That workout was awesome! The endorphins floweth freely, I felt like a baller, and I was feeling too high on life to panic.

Thankfully the hotel wasn’t overly far away, so I ran back while trying to process what just happened and what I should do about it. Upon arriving back to the room I saw that I had multiple missed calls from a particular Albuquerque number that I was not familiar with, from a woman asking that I return her call ASAP, so I did. Long story short, it was from a really delightful little lady named Ann, who owned, of all things, an auto glass repair shop less than a quarter mile away, telling me that my car was parked on the side of her building and appeared to have been broken into and she’d found my business card inside and was concerned. So I walk about three minutes down the street, and sure enough there’s the Salomon car, with a busted out window but otherwise unscathed, and conveniently parked in front of an auto glass repair shop as though to apologize for the damage. This was a small miracle given that people who get their cars stolen in Albuquerque do not get them back. Rather, they end up in remote places with dead bodies or meth in them, or perhaps down in Mexico. But maybe a logoed vehicle was too conspicuous, or somebody had a change of heart a quarter mile down the road. Either way, I like to believe in the innate goodness of humanity, so I’m going with the latter.

At any rate, I assessed the damage and the missing contents, which were surprisingly few things given what was in there. Gone was a bag of Suunto watches, a laptop, a plastic mannequin torso (what?!), and….MY RUNNING JOURNAL. I can totally understand someone wanting to steal a car, a computer, and several thousand dollars of watches, makes sense. But a plastic torso and a journal? To each his own I guess.

Anyway, I was super grateful that everything turned out a-okay and that I even met all sorts of really great people in the process who were so helpful. Bless the good people of New Mexico! I was thinking about it later though, and I was a little bummed about the loss of my running journal. SUCH a dumb thing to be even slightly hung up on given how disastrous that situation could have been. But, if you run and don’t upload it to Strava, did the run really happen? Similarly, if you get your running log stolen, does that mean those runs are GONE?

I jest.

So this particular journal went back to October of 2014. It was basically my stream of consciousness from every run for the last two years. I mean, a part of my SOUL is in that journal! Think Harry Potter: Voldemort puts part of his soul into the book that later possesses Ginny Weasly (see: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), well, part of my soul was in that running log, but chances are it’s unlikely to possess anybody. But even more so, and I don’t mean to stereotype here, but I really hope that whoever has that doesn’t read English very well, because there is some seriously batsh*t crazy stuff written in there. I’m actually sort of mortified thinking about it.

Nah, in reality it’s probably in a dumpster.

But as I was thinking about it, with running I certainly do spend a lot of time reminiscing and analyzing, as I think many of us do, thinking about bygone runs and races, and for myself, this has particularly been the case the last couple of years. You are always comparing yourself to who you were at your best, and you always think that you’re going to get the chance to go back and do things again and better this time, but sometimes you just need to meet yourself where you’re at and go from there.

As it happens, the span of time encapsulated within that journal have been some of the tougher, more struggle-filled seasons of running that I’ve experienced, and I’d spent a lot of time flipping back the pages to this time last year or the year before, and fretting and comparing and over-analyzing and what have you, and it may be best that all of those memories are essentially erased, rendering me incapable of brooding over them. After all, why compulsively dwell on things that don’t help you?

Given the recent circumstances, my now most recent journal ends at the tail-end of an amazing season, and now is missing a large chunk of time that has quite a few negative emotions attached to it, and now it will pick up again as things are on the up-and-up. What better way to move forward than to toss unhelpful thoughts into a dumpster? It’s perfect.

Jellyfish

So around Christmas time, I had the very excited revelation that my Demons had “come out of hibernation,” so to speak, and that I was thus hopping back into the saddle to gallop forth into the glorious sunset to set PR’s, run better than ever before, and CRUSH all races (but only uphill ones, and only at certain grades, and preferably nothing technical. I’m a bit persnickety nowadays).

That’s right: Payne Train Version 2.0 is locked and loaded and about to leave the station folks! Choo-choooo!

And happily, for the most part, that has happened thus far, with the exception of “crushing all races.” I know, I know, “patience, young grasshopper!” Eh, do I still qualify as a “young grasshopper”?

Because come to find out, when you’ve been out of the game for a while, it’s surprisingly tough to work your way back in. You forget, in a way, how much you did and how hard you did it to get to where you were, how many hiccups happened along the way, and how long the build-up really took. That’s one of the things that drives me bonkers when someone chalks up another person to merely being “talented” when they’re winning things. Natural talent plays a role with any good athlete, certainly, and so does luck to a degree, but there’s a whole lot of effort there behind the scenes too. But, blog post for another day. That aside, bottom line is you recall things as having been so much easier than they really were. The great coach Jack Daniels had a name for this aspect of training, he called it the Time-Erodes-Memory Principle. Yes, yes it does.

One of the great positives of spending so much time over the last couple of years more or less removed from the competitive aspect of running, was the abundance of, shall we say, Running-Come-To-Jesus-Moments. In this particular case, mostly brought about by being pulled out of a mindset that I’ve resided in for some time, and forced to look at things more subjectively and without as much emotion tied to them, has been a great way to see all the places where things went wrong both physically and mentally, and just see things for what they were: good, bad, and ugly. When you come to terms with what’s bad and ugly, see that they were not really benefiting anything, you can try to improve them for the next go around.

In any case, it took no time at all for me to go right back to my old ways. In many ways, that’s been a great thing! One thing that disappeared there for a while was the ability, much less the desire, to make myself really hurt. But after jumping into a couple of rinky-dink local races, not to mention actually completing workouts, it became readily apparent that it is still there and has remained perfectly unscathed. And even better, the butterflies came back. Workout days and races are again always preceded by that fluttery feeling of excitement and anticipation blended with a bit of adrenaline because that primitive part of you that thinks you’re about to wrestle a saber-toothed tiger somehow thinks YOU MIGHT DIE TODAY.

But aside from the physical aspect of training, if you really want to be Version 2.0, you have to tackle the whole kit n’ caboodle. The other thing that wasted no time in rearing its ugly, scraggly, mottled little pin-head was the angry little Type-A monster that lives deep (or maybe not so deep) within my psyche, who is absolutely bent on getting a given result, every single day, and is going to make that result happen come hell or high water. Training log says ___________? Then _____________ better happen. When he doesn’t get his way, things get real ugly real fast. I’m not super proud of it.

It’s a crying shame that this characteristic doesn’t seem to permeate a single other area of my life besides running.

They say that we shouldn’t be like bamboo: bamboo looks strong, and it is, but really it’s too rigid, and so it breaks too easily, but rather that we should be more like willows: even though they might look super wimpy, they have a flexible nature and can withstand tough storms because they bend with the wind. I mean, that’s a pretty solid analogy and it gets the point across, but let’s move away from tree metaphors for a moment, to something more original. I think we should try to be more like jellyfish.

Jellyfish have a flowing, tranquil, almost liquid quality that is quite beautiful to behold as they get tossed around to and fro in waves and currents, going wherever the ocean feels compelled to send them, but they also capture their prey by stinging them to death,

jellyfish-2

So tranquil…

and then engulfing them within their bodies prior to consuming them. That really doesn’t line up all that great with the previous tree analogy, but what I’m getting at is that jellyfish go with the flow wherever they go, but when push comes to shove, they get sh*t done. Yes, we should all strive to be like jellyfish.

I’m no jellyfish however. I’m a control freak of such epic proportions that somehow I more often than not make this running thing out to be quite stressful, which is absolutely absurd because it truly does not matter. But alas, that is a concept that the brain will always understand, but the heart never will. Give me a piece of paper with a training schedule to follow, and follow it I will–dotted i’s, crossed t’s and all. Yep, me and that training schedule: Till Death Do Us Part. And very few things give me the warm-fuzzies quite as much as knocking out a whole week, gone to plan, with an A+. But have one tiny thing go wrong; one workout that was a tad slower than anticipated, one run that needed to be replaced with a pool run, a couple of days that needed to get switched around as a

jellyfish

Floating serenely…

result…and behold, it’s not just as though the whole bamboo forest got blown over, but that it then proceeded to light itself on fire.

Yes, it is one of God’s many great miracles that I have never been institutionalized.

But seriously, I didn’t really write this with the intention of actually telling anybody how to go about being a jellyfish, but just that we should. Super helpful I know, you’re welcome. We should be adaptable and fluid regardless of where the waves of life (or running) take us and keep the faith that we can still sting when it counts.

I’ll let you know when I actually figure out how to do this. Don’t hold your breath, but I’m trying.

Till then, don’t be the bamboo.

Maybe don’t even be the willow.

Be the jellyfish.

diver-with-jellyfish

Bro, don’t touch that.

Demons

“So, what do you think is the most important mental quality someone needs to have—that can’t be coached—to be a successful athlete?”

My long-time friend Corey Kubatzky posed this question to me as we conversed on an especially slow Sunday afternoon at the running shop we worked at a couple of years ago. Corey was about to take over as the head women’s cross country coach at CU-Colorado Springs, where he had formerly been the Graduate Assistant during my senior season there several years prior, before spending some time in Michigan coaching with the Hanson’s Distance Project (of which his wife was a member), and he was now putting together his first NCAA recruiting questionnaire for potential incoming athletes who would comprise his future teams.

I paused in my Windexing of the watch case to contemplate briefly.

“Demons,” I responded, at which he burst out laughing. And with good reason too: we shared a whole lot of miles together “back in the day”–some better than others—during the 2007-2009 seasons where he always graciously accompanied me during many a training run and workout given our lack of women on the team to train with at that time. The guy is just so non-judgmental that a few times I probably got a little too comfortable around him in saying exactly whatever it was I was thinking, sans filter. One thing that’s stayed true and unchanging for many years now is that although I will always love this sport, it at times frustrates me to absolutely no end, and I was much (or perhaps just slightly)  less adept back then at mastering any mental turmoil going on at a given time, so needless to say, he’d heard it all. What a lucky guy.

loon

Yes, that fateful race in 2014 where my demons got the best of me. Boy am I glad I picked a US Championship to mentally implode in spectacular fashion…let’s not go back to that dark place, shall we?

Now, I’m not entirely sure if that question actually ended up making the cut for his questionnaire, but I still think it’s pretty valid, and I can just see it: “Please list all demons.”

In any case, not very long ago, I read something somewhere that some smart person said at some point sometime, that “Every human being should find out, before they die, exactly what they are running to, from, and why.” And at the same time, I was reminded of this aforementioned conversation in the running store a couple of years ago.

I have mentioned before that for many months over the last couple of years, that running had come to lack a certain something that it used to have. It took me some time to realize that a certain sort of urgency was missing from the equation, it was as though I had given myself a pass or become complacent or perhaps written myself off and somehow tried to convince myself that I was okay with that, when I never really was. Granted, it didn’t really help that for a large portion of that time, that I couldn’t really run, but that’s a minor technicality. That aside, I realized the other day, with a strange kind of relief, that after a few aggravating turns of events in my own little Running Realm in recent weeks, that I was feeling incredibly frustrated, because that sense of urgency has returned and ain’t nobody got time for a buncha baloney. Yes, the demons are back. The sport that I love is frustrating me to no end…again! And that–despite a few hiccups–actually makes me pretty thrilled. I was so happy because I was so angry! It was a moment akin to the movie, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, when the Grinch’s heart goes from being shriveled-up-walnut-sized, to regular sized, and he realizes with great joy that HE REALLY CARES!  Bless you, Cindy Lou Who!grinch

Or something like that. Regardless, it seems the demons are out of hibernation.

I think a lot of competitive athletes, regardless of level, understand and can relate to the strange feeling of “urgency” that drives us to go out and put in miles and tough workouts despite various circumstances; to not care about the weather or conditions or other outside factors, to make it work when it’s anything but convenient, or perhaps play a little Russian roulette with injuries and such. For many of us, that urgency is our demon. Sure, we all love what we do and that’s the ultimate driving force (or at least it should be), but there is something else there too, something that makes us not care so much about all of those other things, to throw caution to the winds, and put our noses to the grindstone with no promise of a favorable outcome or of ever really seeing our work come to fruition.

In addition to leaving no stone unturned in our own little “quests for glory,” I think part of us also knows that we may only get one shot at what we really want to accomplish, thus creating some of said urgency.

I was hanging out with my friend Peter–a sinewy, mustachioed, beer-swillin’, badass mountain runner–not long ago, who is battling a super tough injury with a somewhat questionable prognosis and he was debating upon what course of action to take, and lamenting the potential loss of some upcoming race opportunities.

“People always say, ‘Don’t worry, that race will be here next year,” he said, “and it will, but I might not be.”

I think that particular statement perfectly encapsulated what we all kind of feel as runners: that our time to maximize our potential and really see what we’re made of is, in reality, quite limited. We’re mortals—particularly from an athlete standpoint–and that creates this “demon,” so to speak, of urgency to fulfill our potential while the window of opportunity is still open.

And in a way, running is also a way in which many of us fight back against our demons, whatever they may be. For instance, I was talking with my friend David today, who coaches a lot of top-notch folks, and we got onto the topic of how in the day and age of social media in particular, there is always a positive, glowing picture painted of successful athletes’ lives, when in reality, many of them are actually quite self-destructive. But, running is their way of fighting those inner demons, a way to cope and calm their monkey minds, and they’ve become damn good athletes in the process.

To conclude this nonsensical, rambling, jumble of thoughts, what I’m getting at is that our “demons” can be many things. They can certainly be destructive if we let their voices get too loud, they can give us the yips, and they can sometimes keep us up at night. But if they’re channeled correctly they can be friends rather than foes, and they can all be used to create the same result, driving us to do whatever we can with the time we’re given because we just have to know what we’re capable of.

The Strumbellas put it nicely when they sang:

“I got guns in my head and they won’t go, spirits in my head and they won’t go, but the gun still rattles, the gun still rattles…”

Demons, folks: gotta have ‘em. Now if you’ll excuse me,  I’m off to dye my hair black and pierce my lip with a safety pin. Run on, fellow whack-jobs!

Running Full Circle

After I finished the last run of my 30th trip around the sun a couple of weeks back—which happened to be a hill workout (my favorite) on one of my favorite big hills (High Drive. Happy birthday to me, let’s go run uphill repeatedly.)—I was sitting in the river post-workout in Bear Creek Park and it occurred to me what a whirlwind the last year has been. Seriously. Like, whoa.

I almost had to laugh though, because exactly one year prior, I was coincidentally finishing a run in the exact same spot (I know this because I am a dork of astonishing proportions and I keep a running log that is so nerdily detailed that sometimes I get really embarrassed when I go back and re-read it because I actually wrote those things at one time. Then again, come to think of it, that’s basically the story of my life.), knowing that it would be my last run there for an undetermined amount of time as I was in the process of throwing everything into the back of a Uhaul to go down to Texas to tackle a new job and whatever came with it. Even though I wasn’t running well and my foot was still quite exploded-feeling at that time, I had nonetheless kind of done this “last tour” sort of deal of all of my favorite and most cherished running spots, of which there are many. It took like a month. I get super attached to all these places, it really doesn’t matter that I’ve been in Springs since I was 18, some things won’t ever get old. In any case, I wasn’t really sure when I’d be back, so it was a little bit of a bittersweet time of life, with a weird mix of super-high-stoke-level and anticipation (because shiny new job), yet combined with a lot of trepidation (because Texas) and a bit of uncertainty and nostalgia (because life). While I was really excited for something new and different, I nevertheless promised myself that I’d be back eventually and that it would probably feel like I never left.

Actually I ended up being back way sooner than I expected so needless to say it actually did feel like I never left. Sooo….PSYCH!

Anyway, back to my story of contemplating life while sitting in the stream post-hill session.

Running—like life—has oodles of challenges, as we all well know. Which is of course part of why it’s rad. If you didn’t have a bunch of physical and mental battles to fight en route to improving, it would get rather repetitive rather quickly and would perhaps lose some of the satisfaction  and sense of purpose that comes with trying, sometimes failing, figuring it out, trying again, and then often repeating the process again down the line. It would be “like shooting fish in a barrel” as they say. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

One of said challenges in my own running life that I was not really aware even existed until recently when I was finally able to put my finger on it, revolved around a weird and rather difficult to articulate feeling of being…adrift, I guess you could say. Un-anchored. Rudderless. Unmoored. Floating. Why are these all nautical references?

Allow me to elaborate. Actually, given that this is my blog, I’m going to elaborate till I’m blue in the face whether anyone allows it or not. I mean, my middle name may as well be “Unnecessary Elaboration” anyway.

Excluding time spent on my high school and college teams quite a while ago—which were great times– running has always been more or less been a very solo endeavor of mine and  more or less by choice. Some people hate training alone, but I love it. I don’t really understand that about myself, but at this point I just roll with it. And running is not really something I share with anyone in my life outside of people in my “running world.”

Despite the aloneness with which I’ve pursued running, it has rarely felt particularly lonely to me. I’ve always been fortunate to have the support of wonderful coaches and teammates both collegiately and post-collegiately, as well as friends and acquaintances in our small but very close-knit running community here at the foot of Pikes Peak, which is full of characters and, like the bar “Cheers,” it often feels like “everybody knows your name.”

I also had the great fortune of working for several years in a terrific local running shop that was populated by local runners who put in the miles before (and after) punching the clock every day and who understood well the grind and joy that comes with training and competing and always chasing after that elusive “next level.” It was also home to a fantastic club team that was comprised of more of the same kind of people. So, in a sport where it can be easy to get a bit lost when pursuing it on your own, it was a little like having a perfect little sphere of support and understanding in which to keep chasing after your dreams yet at the same time being able to feel like you weren’t in it on your own at all, that you were doing it for more than just yourself, and that you are not, in fact, a complete freak. Well, that could be debatable, but regardless….good times!

For various reasons beyond anyone’s control, those things more or less abruptly ceased to exist, so cue all of the aforementioned  nautical references regarding feeling slightly adrift, and amplify that with the challenges that come with battling a stubborn, longer-term injury that was super tough to kick, toss in a relocation and life adjustment, and talk about feeling like being up a stream without a paddle and generally slightly out of sorts.

One big take-away of the last year or so and something that I’ve come to have more and more faith in is that the right people and situations will drift into (and occasionally out of) your life at all the right times, and that it nearly always works out. That could perhaps be the most naïve statement ever, and really, maybe it’s just that we end up somewhat creating–subconsciously–what we need around us  (thanks a bunch, psychology degree, for helping me learn to overthink the sh*t out of everything), but I don’t know…I’ve seen a few too many things work out way too neatly way too often to chalk it up to just that.  

While I certainly do miss it, without being as immersed in the small running bubble that I was once part of, I’ve taken significantly more notice of what a great, even bigger, running world that we have here in Springs (and beyond) and have come to appreciate infinitely more the people that comprise it, who always offer their support and who I’ve heard yell for me at races here and there and many of whose names I don’t even know. People who I’ve never met who ask how my running is going, or leave comments on this completely nonsensical blog, or shoot me a message across cyberspace to offer encouragement or whatnot. Sometimes I’m a bit taken aback that anyone is remotely interested, but geez, do I ever appreciate it.

Add this to the fact that I connected a while back with a great coach (David Roche) who has a great group of runners spread across the US (yay S.W.A.P.!) who all watch and genuinely support each other’s progress from afar, and it’s not a whole lot different from what I used to have.

My final warm and fuzzy thought before I wrap this up, is that months ago I was questioning how much and whether to continue to attempt to pursue running all that competitively anymore—at least for a while–simply due what I now recognize as feeling a little too “on my own,” or like I wasn’t doing it for anything bigger than myself anymore, or like I needed to put it all on the back-burner thinking that I needed to become, like, a real grown-up or whatever (I decided that was over-rated pretty much within the first hour). But running is the same as ever, it’s just set in a slightly different context than ever before, because things change. What has not changed, however, is that I’ve always had folks who’ve had my back, all the time, and without all of them I don’t know that I would still be chasing “it,” and that regardless of the circumstances, that’s ultimately always made all the difference.