Sometimes we just do hard things, to paraphrase Scott Jurek. But what is our “why” for doing the hard things? I’ve thought a lot about that as it relates to my own personal why over the past year.
Our why needs to be more than a shiny medal or buckle. Our why needs to be something so strong that it’s life-changing, or life-affirming. Our why needs to be something that we can latch on to when things turn dark, as they inevitably will during an ultra marathon.
I planned to do my first 100K in May 2018, based on the natural — if anything about running dozens of miles at once can be called natural — progression of ultra runners. However, four days before my planned debut at the distance I underwent emergency abdominal surgery.
From my hospital bed, I emailed Francesca Conte, who co-directs the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) with her husband, James Gill. “So, change of plans … “ I wrote. Conte was extremely understanding and allowed me to defer my entry to 2019.
The road to recovery
As support poured in from family members, friends and the running community, I responded to a text from my friend, co-worker and now coaching client Cameran that illustrates my mindset.
“Been thinking about running a lot. This is why we do it. To explore. To challenge ourselves. To climb those real and metaphorical mountains. Because at some point we won’t be able to. That time hasn’t come for me yet. But this will serve as motivation to get back at it again.”
That motivation was critical in my early days of recovery. Instead of traversing the single-track trails in the mountains of Virginia the morning of last year’s UROC, I pushed my IV cart slowly a step at a time around the hallways of the hospital’s fifth floor. The doctors told me I would be in the hospital for “four to six days” after the surgery. My son’s final high school honors program was in four days and I motivated myself to walk as often as I could, get out early and attend the school program.
I was released in 3 ½ days.
From there, I continued to follow the doctor’s orders. I walked regularly around the streets where neighbors were used to seeing me run. 8,000 steps a day, then 10,000 before I eclipsed 12,000. Soon enough I was cleared for light jogging.
I continued to progress, regaining my strength and endurance, all the while seeking redemption at UROC. I fared well at a half marathon trail race three months post-surgery, placed second in my age group out of 46 at the Fox Valley 20-miler, ran a 3:34:59 at the Chicago Marathon and then capped off the year with an age group victory at the Chattanooga 50-miler, my third at that distance.
With UROC about five months away, I paused my training for a well-deserved break. But I never stopped thinking about UROC.
Finding joy, finding my why
As 2019 dawned, I began working with a new coach, who built a training plan quite different from my previous one. Gone were twice-weekly yoga sessions, replaced by weight training. There would be running and lots of it. In fact, my three highest-volume months ever were March (259 miles), April (195.3) and February (181.3)
I switched up my training to knock out these miles before work, necessitating a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call. Sometimes I would begrudgingly hit the treadmill at the local YMCA, other times I ran around local neighborhoods and sometimes — best of all — I would scurry around the cross-country course near my home.
I discovered a lot about myself during these runs. On the physical side, I learned my body can handle more mileage and stress than what I did in the past. But more importantly, I found my “why.”
The calmness of the morning before my city awakens is refreshing. The quiet hum of nature along the trails. The peace and beauty of the morning sunrise. Of course, all of those elements were there before my surgery. But something changed in me.
Inspired by nature, I had a new sense of calm, of serenity. I felt as one with the ground my feet were striking. This tranquility, for the most part, stuck with me through the day. As I strengthened my physical well-being, I also improved my emotional well-being.
With a training plan pushing my limits, I found solace in the daily struggle. It’s exactly what I needed as my date with UROC edged closer.
Mettle, not medal
That transformation guided me through the cold, snowy and icy months in early 2019. I counted down the weeks until UROC as my mileage soared past previous weekly and monthly records.
I never once hit the snooze and made up some excuse to stay under the covers. I sought the comfort of heading out the door. Easy run, speedwork, long run — it didn’t matter.
In the days leading up to UROC, I was asked by a couple of friends whether I was nervous. The truth is that I wasn’t. I had come so far in the past year that the race was icing on the cake. While I had my “A” goal that I didn’t hit my “B” goal was just to finish.
The race was challenging for sure. Due to some issues caused by winter, Conte and Gill were forced to change the 100K course from a point-to-point to a double out-and-back in two different directions. While the elevation change was reduced from the traditional route, it still required 11,000 feet of climbing and 11,000 feet of descending. That may not sound like a lot to many trail runners who regularly run mountains. But for someone who lives at 627 feet of elevation in flat Indiana, it made for a challenging day.
As I made my way through the mountainous course, I thought about far how I had come. Not just the 60ish miles from when we started at the top of Skylark. But from a year ago when I had to be unplugged from the wall by a nurse before I could meander around the hospital halls.
Perhaps those memories are what got me out of bed at oh-dark-thirty. We only have so much time on this planet. It’s in our best interest to allocate as much time as possible to family, friends and our passions. And with my passion for running, I need to be challenged. I need to set big goals. I need to stride towards those with purpose and passion.
At the end of the day, it’s not the shiny trinkets that hang around my neck or on the wall. It’s knowing that I accomplished a big audacious goal. Especially when it’s a year in the making.
And that’s why we do hard things.