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What Ultra Running Means to Me


Tucker's longest run of 15 miles. Being able to go long with him is one of the great joys in my life, running or otherwise.

In 2005 I picked up running because I was in graduate school, had little money, and was putting on weight. I needed an activity that was relatively inexpensive while living in a city (London) where everything felt very expensive. Additionally, I had a goal to someday complete an Ironman triathlon. At the time of my starting I couldn't afford a fancy bike, and swimming regularly comes with a cost. I figured I could get the running of a marathon out of the way.

It is more than a decade on and I've done the Ironman I set as a goal for myself (three, in fact). I've given up traithlon, but running remains one of the most important parts of my life. This is how it happened, and what it has given me in terms of broader goal setting perspective for my career.

Patience.

I am not, by nature a particularly patient person and I am not by nature very good at running. In fact, I am a pretty mediocre runner. I have the body build of a water polo player which is like a construction worker crossed with a mermaid. I don't move particularly gracefully on land. However, I have one key quality that has kept me going: I am extremely stubborn. When one is putting a positive spin on the word, stubborn, I believe it is called 'diligent' or 'hard working'. My loved ones see it differently.

When I started this year I set the goals of getting back into a fully functioning running groove, completing another double crossing of the Grand Canyon, and finishing my first hundred mile foot race. Of course, being the self critical impatient person I am I want all these things yesterday. Achieving these goals is going to take consistent weeks running above fifty miles. What's been happening so far is one week I feel on top of the world, and the next I feel like absolute garbage. The trick is to not declare victory when I am on top of the world, nor throw in the towel when a week doesn't go to plan. Having a good training week isn't the goal, and having a bad week isn't a reason to quit.

Building and developing a career that gives my life meaning and purpose feels very much the same. It is a slow and laboring process. Some weeks I am overwhelmed with opportunities and feeling like I am completely hitting my stride. While others feel fruitless, and I am not sure how the tides will turn. What is important is that we keep pushing forward on the plan, and when the moment is right we utilize the skills we've put together to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.

Speaking of which.

Goal Setting and Planning.

There are three really important things to remember with setting goals.

(1) You must set a plan to achieve your goals.

(2) Your plan will fail.

(3) Do it anyway.

Let me explain, and I'll use the example of training and preparing to run the Rim to Rim to Rim (Grand Canyon Double Crossing). One starts at the south rim, traverses roughly 23 miles to the north rim, and then back to the south rim. The goal, and basically requirement because there is no legal or safe to stay in the canyon without a booking or permit, is to do this in one day. My goal was to get this done in twelve hours. There is no support staff, and it is incredibly selfish to attempt to do this without intense preparation as emergency evacuations are expensive and time consuming for an already stretched park ranger staff. One starts in the morning, when it is very dark and very cold -- there can easily be snow cover -- and continues through the day when temperatures can easily reach 95 degrees in the canyon. The only true times to attempt this is in early spring or early fall as you want the snow cover to have mostly melted but not so late in the season that temperatures in the canyon are well north of 100 degrees.

It is a bit complicated and extremely dangerous and irresponsible if one doesn't make a plan. Oh, and there are months of training before you even start.

When I did this the first time I set a goal of 12 hours. And I completely missed it by three hours finishing in 15. So many parts of my plan failed. I forgot sunglasses, sunblock, and a hat because I was excited at the start and it was, you know, pitch black and 35 degrees. We took our time taking pictures and enjoying the sights because, well this is still the Grand Canyon and it is impossible not to be rendered motionless by its beauty.

By one metric I had failed in my attempt. By another -- um, I am still alive -- this was a rousing success.

This is what I mean by put a plan together, it will fail, do it anyway. You have to have a plan come close to hitting your goals. You can't just state the goal, haphazardly do some training miles (or update your linkedin profile) and then expect that somehow you will safely arrive on the other side. You have to plan, make honest effort attempts, fail, learn, readjust, plan again, make honest efforts, fail, learn, and on, and on. You have to realize which goals are immovable (getting to the finishing line) and which goals need to be readjusted to accommodate conditions (finishing in 12 hrs versus staying alive).

And then you stand on the other side, take in the accomplishment. Breathe in, and then set new goals, and move forward again.

Stretching Limits.

I love running. But I hate working out. Running is about seeing beauty, finding peace, testing myself, feeling alive. Working out is very boring and very dumb. Matthew Inman covers this in his comic The Oatmeal and does so much better than I can.

I am now a person of a certain age. And my body just will not go any longer without tending to it with some yoga, and strength conditioning, and track speed work, and I just fell asleep even writing those things. But if I want to get that 100 mile footrace done, we are going to have to break these muscles down and build new ones. If I stay static, nothing new will happen. And potentially worse. The old muscles will begin to atrophy, becoming complacent. Doing the same thing over and over, expecting new results.

I have spent most of my career in the solar and energy industry. When I made the decision to step away, it was extremely difficult. I have a robust background in this field, and I have been at the center of nearly every single major conversation in the industry over the last ten years. I am proud of this work.

But I want to stretch myself in new ways. I want to bring the things I have learned here and apply them to new areas of interest. And I think the field would benefit from fresh and diverse perspectives. So I railed against every natural instinct. I studied new ideas, I took a look at new fields, I've stopped rushing and have been more contemplative, and I have opened myself to the possibility that there can be fresh ways to look at all problems.

Note: I still hate doing yoga. And I still hate standing still. I just recognize I need to do these things from time to time if I want to better myself.

Finding Joy in Simplicity.

Focusing on a goal, whatever it is, is an important aspect to getting yourself off the coach, off of facebook, and towards realization. However, if you sit and obsess about the enormity of the task, then you will fail.

As I have humbly professed at least half a dozen times already, I am preparing for a 100 mile foot race. That race is set for the end of September. Firstly, some folks have said "Wow, that's really impressive". No. No it is not. I have put my credit card down for a chance to enter. You can do this. Go do it right now. This is the fourth time I've done it. Once I even made it to the starting line!

Secondly, the thing is in September. To get to the starting line, healthy and prepared, I am going to have to do a lot of very simple, mundane, repetitive things on a daily basis and do them consistently for months. If I do not find some joy in doing those things, and little victories along the way, I am going to fail. Of that I am completely certain. Every time I allow myself to imagine the finishing line during a run, I correct myself by pushing hard for the next ten seconds of that run. Drawing myself back into the moment. I also have made ways to find the joy in the immediacy of what I am doing -- looking for fun new trails in my area, finding new running partners and friends and remembering that, as cliche as it is, it is as much about the process, as it is about the results.

The Finish Line.

All of this reflection on what running means to me has made me think back to my second marathon ever. It was on my birthday (26th in fact) in Connemara, Ireland. A pastoral course in western Ireland that hosted three races that day. A half marathon (13.1), a full marathon (26.2), and an ultra marathon (39.3). I chatted with a irish lad at mile six of my race. He was doing the ultra, so his 19th mile. He had been up until around two am enjoying some guinness. He was pushing the pace, and after a mile I was struggling to keep up, and I let him run off. Earlier that day with a woman who was about to do her 150th marathon. She did 149th the day before. I remember feeling overwhelmed by all their accomplishments. I would never get there, I thought.

But here I am. I've lost track of the number of marathons I've done. And I've run more than 39 miles quite a few times. I giggle at that kid who couldn't just enjoy running a marathon on his birthday in Ireland. But this isn't to say I'm done. Not by any stretch of the imagination. There is no finish line in sight and I still have a ways to go, with so manys different ways I to go. Let's try them all, and find joy in each.