In 1998 I went to a summer camp in Northern Michigan where I tried a rope course for the very first time. The camp counselors running the course asked me to think about one thing that I wanted to do in my life that would take courage. Once I chose that one thing, I was told to ride the zip line down to the bottom. I could not do it. At that point in my life, I did not do heights or drops. I had to climb down in defeat. It wasn’t just embarrassment that I had to climb the ladder back down. It was that the zip line was a metaphor for doing the difficult things in my life, and I could not do it. If riding a zip line to the ground was impossible, how could anything in my life be possible?
When I started Cognitive Processing Therapy, I used the analogy of one of my road runs. My run allows me to make 2 choices. I can run to the stop sign at the two-mile mark and turn around for the easy way out, or I can keep going past the stop sign and run up a long, steep hill. Turning around will not make me a better runner, but it will give me a faster mile time. Continuing up the hill will be hard, but my legs and lungs will get stronger.
This past week I have struggled. I have not wanted to get out of bed, eat, or get dressed. I have had a hard time getting motivated to complete my workouts, follow a routine, or make a schedule. It seems as though I went out for a run, made it to the stop sign, and without consideration turned right back around. It will always be easier to turn around, but it will not make me any better. For years I made a habit out of turning around. I was in and out of hospitals for months at a time with as little as three days out before being admitted again. I attempted to end my life several times. I used (and still use – with less frequency and intensity) self-protective, self-destructive strategies to feel as though I was in control. Easier, not better.
Today, I could not sit in my house any longer. It was sunny and 45 degrees; a far cry from the two to four inches of snow they are calling for in the next 24 hours. I put my headphones in, put my barefoot running shoes on, grabbed my hat, and hit the start button on my Whoop app for the strain coach. As I started running up the hill from my house, I realized the trail I was going to run on would be brutal in barefoot shoes, so I turned left at the corner and headed toward College Ave. I turned right onto College Ave. headed toward Keystone College anticipating the steady climb up the soft hill, the uneven sidewalk where I have skinned my knees more than once, and the numbers on the road. I do not know why someone spray painted numbers, but they count down and end at the corner with the stop sign. I was so distracted by the progress I was making while watching the numbers count down that I ran past the stop sign, turned right, and headed up the hill. I decided to run two telephone poles and walk two telephone poles until I made it up the hill. I ran aggressively and walked quickly. I felt every step; each crack in the pavement, every pebble and twig, and the burn in my quads and calves. It was hard, and my lungs were calling for air while my heart pounded 180 times each minute.
It was at the first telephone pole after I turned the corner to go up the hill that I realized what I had done. At that moment I realized I was not running from myself as I used to do when running. I was physically running to prove to myself that I could figuratively run. I was completely alone and could have stopped without anyone knowing, but I would have known. Instead, I took the resources I had and trusted that those resources were enough. I had telephone poles to run to, one at a time. I had music that perfectly matched the pace I wanted to maintain while running. I had legs that had been endurance and strength trained for the past year, always to exhaustion, sometimes to failure. I had new shoes that I had worked to break in for a couple months; ones that allowed me to recognize when my running form waivered from what I wanted. Last, I had my hat. That hat has been EVERYWHERE with me, and it reminds me how far I have come.
So, in the next several days, weeks, months, and years, I will strive to focus on the goals ahead of me and take one at a time. I will listen to the people telling me to keep moving, especially the ones who know just how fast I am capable of moving. I will keep in mind the many skills I have developed and will strive to use them through exhaustion and failure. I will make an effort to pay attention to the warning signs that indicate I am making progress but not efficiently and definitely with risk. Finally, I have my history, and that is exactly what it is. If my life the past 5 years were the Leadville Ultramarathon, I am definitely not still standing at the starting line. However, the Leadville 100 has drastic elevation changes, ascending up to around 16,000 feet, can take well over 30 hours (the cut-off), boasts some extremely rugged terrain, and changes from hot and sunny to windy and raining to dark and below freezing. Those are pretty extreme hardships. I anticipate something similar to that in my life, and I am convinced there will be times I sit on the trail and cry out of exhaustion, refusing to move because my blisters are too big, I’ve run out of water in my pack, or I forgot my jacket when the wind and rain started.
I’ve watched a few documentaries on running ultramarathons (and Ironman Triathlons), and I find them fascinating. I watched one called “The Why” in which Billy Yang tries to explain why anyone would do something so insane (isn’t life just as insane?!). He was running the Leadville. One of my favorites, though, is about two friends who tried running the Run Rabbit Run 100 in Steamboat Springs, CO (with a 48 hour cut-off). Jayson Sime convinced his friend to run the race with him because he wanted to test his interesting philosophy in life. He believed that people can do anything they put their minds to, as long as they work hard and refuse to quit. I am not going to reveal whether they made it to the finish line before the cut-off, especially as they fought through injuries, terrible weather, forgotten clothing, and other hardships. It really doesn’t matter if they made it before the cut-off. The goal was to finish. They did finish. They ran together the entire time, and they had a team that met them at each checkpoint to give them clothes, food, rest, first aid, and encouragement.
That is what I am going to make an effort to do. Finish. With GRIT. With the resources I have. With my team. And it is going to SUCK. “Embrace the Suck.”
If you want to watch either of the documentaries I mentioned, here they are:
The Why (Leadville 100, Leadville, CO)
REI Presents: How to Run 100 Miles (Run Rabbit Run 100, Steamboat Springs, CO)