Friday, April 12, 2013

Taking Stock

Last week I had my semi-annual crisis of confidence during what was all in all a very pleasant (if exhausting) family trip to The Most Magical Place On Earth. After a long day on our feet in the Mouseland I was struggling through a very slow five mile jog, not acclimated to the 80-degree temps, and engaging in one of my favorite easy-run pleasures, listening to Ultrarunner Podcast. For those not familiar, URP is basically two mid-pack ultra geeks in Northern California, Eric Schranz and Scott Sandow, who interview ultrarunners--top studs like Max King, Dave Mackey, Anton Krupicka et al, but also "everyday" athletes with interesting stories to tell. They're very enthusiastic, they love the sport, they love good beer, and they've become pretty good interviewers over the past two years.  I was listening to their conversation with Russ Thomas, who a few years ago weighed 400 lbs but opted for diet and exercise over gastric bypass surgery, lost almost 200 pounds and now runs ultras all over the country. This was the guys' second interview with Russ, and he was reflecting on some of the obstacles that had forced him to curtail his training somewhat in the 10 months that had elapsed since his first interview.  Anyway, around the 18-minute mark, I hear this:

Scotty: Do you have any lessons from 2012 that you're going to apply to 2013?

Russ: I think I do and...even with this training plan, I'm tapering right now and we're two weeks to race time and so, what's done is done at this point, but I think, I mentioned earlier, you know, enjoy what I'm doing and have fun doing it.  Sometimes, and again I'm preaching to the choir here, sometimes you get really focused--and this was me in 2012--I've got to get this four-hour run or I've got to get this run done here.  And I'd start to work up, crazy as it sounds, stress in my life over a training plan, you know? And so I took a step back and, if anything, lesson learned.  You know, a couple weeks ago, parents are in town, or travel, or something happened, and I didn't get a long run in.  Instead of four hours I did an hour and a half, and I stepped back and I'm OK with that.  Now in two weeks I may be dragging ass in a spot in this race and realize uh-oh, I should've stuck to that plan.  But if anything, I've learned that I've got to, first and foremost, I've got to enjoy it, I've got to have fun with this.

Scotty: That's a good point.  You know, I think for alot of us that when we have this one event that we're really focusing on, that we put undue pressure on ourselves, and just think about the toll that takes on your life, your family, your friends, your work, and everything else when, it's not meant to be that way at all, it's the complete just polar opposite of where your mindset should be.  So if you feel that way, rethink it, because I think you'll enjoy the journey and the process that much more.

Now let me first stop and say, I love URP, I think those guys are great.  They are real ultrarunners who enjoy pushing themselves, do not at all seem like the type of guys who would ever look for the "easy way out."  Both of them have families and fit their training in around work and kids and god knows what else.  And secondly, I'm not trying to say anything bad about Russ Thomas, who is clearly about ten thousand times stronger mentally than I could ever hope to be, as I sit here typing this while drinking a Sierra Nevada and eating an actual block of cheese.

But having said that: this is kind of it in a nutshell, isn't it?  I mean, there's a reason why Max King can run 5:36 at JFK and Dave James can run a sub-14:00 hundred, and that reason goes beyond "talent".  There's a point for everyone past which it just isn't fun and there is the question of sacrifice involved.  For some it might be an unwillingness to suffer or just to say, "This isn't fun, I'm not going to do it."  For others, it might always be fun, or at least you might always be willing to do the work physically, but there are external limits placed on what you can do--by work, family, friends, whatever.  If you're going to fully realize your potential, it ALL has to be fodder for sacrifice.  You've got to be willing to give up anything in order to get where you want to go.  Very, very few people are willing to do that.  It's hard.  It's pretty lonely.  The guys who can truly lay it on the line are few and far between--but that's why they are successful.

I'm not trying to say we shouldn't enjoy it.  We should.  I mean, ideally we should.    But if we don't enjoy it, that doesn't necessarily make it less relevant or less worthwhile.  It may be kind of sad and pathetic to keep struggling after some unreachable ideal beyond the point where you're even getting something as basic as "enjoyment" out of it, but it's still worth something, right?  I think?

And here's the thing: consciously, in this moment of suffering on what should be a nondescript recovery run, I can realize this.  I can realize that, yes, I may enjoy it more if I obsessed about it less, and ultimately, I'm not good enough anyway where there should be anything other than my enjoyment of it at stake.  I shouldn't feel bad that my lack of mental resolve is preventing me from achieving the dubious goal of being an elite ultrarunner.  But I do.

So this is what's running through my head as I'm suffering through this five mile slog on a flat, paved path around the Fort Wildnerness Campground in sweltering Orlando: "You'll never get there because you're soft."  Every non-running aspect of my life is keeping me from running a 2:20 marathon or whatever, and the reason I can't do it is because I'm not strong enough to quit my job, sell my house, and live in a yurt; or because I can never stop at two slices of pizza and that's why I'm always three pounds heavier than I want to be for race day; or because I can't make myself wake up at 4 am to get in a full 15 miles before we go to the Magic Kingdom, and what kind of recovery is gallivanting around Disney World anyway, when I have an evening run to do, Sage Canaday and Yassine Diboun are going to eat my lunch in two months and I might as well just lie down and die.

Well.  We're back home now, I've had a few good days running since we've been back; I had a nice fartlek workout on Tuesday and a good solid hill run yesterday.  I hit about 80 miles last week and I should get around 90 this week, and I'm feeling much more myself.  I feel much more balanced.  The hamstring is still a bit dodgy but has been doing better.  I'm getting excited to race and see what I can do against the big boys. I have an amazing family that means everything to me and a job that I'm fortunate allows me to provide for them without anyone having to want for anything. I'm not willing to give those things up, and it's probably good that I'm not. But sometimes it does make me a little wistful about where I'm headed in the sport and what might have been.