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On Luck and Work

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“Must be nice!” - a phrase that instantly sets me on a warpath. I see it (and hear it) all the time on social media, via text, or secondhand through friends and family. It’s never meant to be a genuine compliment. It’s a universal “bless her heart,” or “not that I’m judging.” It’s a way for folks to ruin vacations, nice dinners, or generally any positive experience of another person. It’s a (very clever) way to comment on the good fortune of another while dismissing any risk, sweat, or sacrifice that went into that good fortune. 

It’s a problem. Here’s why. 

We often see other’s successes as a product of luck or happenstance, while seeing our own as direct results of our own actions. We balk at the idea of privilege or deny having a leg up on the competition. 

“I worked for everything I have!” 

We cite the early mornings, long drives, and late nights as the stepping stones for our success. At the same time we assume that that new car or long sabbatical of another is a product of wealthy parents or otherwise unseen hands inaccessible to us. 

I’ve heard some form of “must be nice” a lot the past few months when chatting about this hike, or its cousins “I could never do that,” and “I mean, does she work?” My mother has started telling people I have a rich boyfriend - which shockingly some folks seem to believe. When the conversation turns down this street, I, like any of you, instantly rattle off the work I’ve put into prior to this adventure, like that I’ve worked a number of jobs to save money. I’ll point out the fact that I’m doing remote work during the trek and argue that I’ve made the financial and personal choices leading up to this excursion that enabled me to take five months to cross the country on foot - again. 

Then I stop and realize that I’m also very lucky. I’m lucky to have the health to carry me 2650 miles, lucky to have parents who will send packages and basically serve as my personal assistants, and lucky for a work team of two incredible women who accommodate my schedule. I’m also lucky to have a background and a partner that/who give me financial and emotional security. 

But here’s the conclusions from 6k feet - everything is some combination of work and luck. Not only do we have to credit both with any and all successes (our own or others), but we also have to admit that we don’t know how much of either contributes to our current situation. I don’t know how much of this trip is luck or work. When I think of the work put into my PhD (undoubtedly enabling me to secure remote research work) I’m reminded of the early days of my youth spent reading with my mother or grandmother and how those sessions inspired a thirst for learning that has yet to be quenched. If I hadn’t have had those - would I still value education? When I think of the lucky circumstances that led me to my supportive partner, I have to remember the work required to have a happy and healthy relationship. I could have squandered that chance. At the end of the day, I could drive myself crazy trying to figure out the ratio of hubris to humility I should show. What deserves gloating and what deserves gratitude. 

So I guess it IS nice. But it’s also work, and until we can figure out an algorithm that assigns a percentage of influence to each, the best we can do is to neither rely too much on luck nor give too much credit to our work, and hope for the best of both. 

If you want to think more about luck, check out this TED Radio Hour

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On Legacies: TIL Run Free Missouri

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Americans love a legacy. We love telling the stories of the things that have stayed with us over the years - the stories we hope outlive our memories. We pass down valuable heirlooms and priceless trinkets. We love thinking about what we leave behind when we go, we tell the hero myths of our country’s founding, scribble our names on school desks, church walls, and new buildings. Running through Kansas City, I noticed the stamps in the sidewalks - 1986 - the year I was born. I was running on a sidewalk as old as I was. I was running on someone’s legacy. It reminded me of a bridge in southern Illinois. I loved that bridge, seeing it in the distance, the bumps serving as a metronome, the cables flashing by in time. There was a melodic thrill to that bridge, and along with my siblings I always held my breath as we drove to the safety of the other side. I liked all bridges as a kid, but I loved this one. I loved it because my Dad helped build it. I was awestruck thinking about how the same hands that would toss me a baseball or brush my hair were capable of building such a marvel. That bridge was the most majestic and enduring thing my young eyes had ever seen, and it was a legacy.

As I often do on these runs, I thought of the first people to ford the engorged rivers with no support drivers, no google maps, and no way to call for help if  needed. I thought of their legacies of exploration, resourcefulness, daring, and resilience. I thought of the legacies of discovering a new place, of moving through it or choosing to make it your home.

Running through the Missouri fields I thought of the famers who have worked that land, passed it down through generations. I thought of the family homesteads that year after year plow, seed, and eventually harvest their crops, the generations of men and women who birth, grow, and slaughter their livestock. There’s a romantic triad to farming, a harmony of unvaried indissolubility, certain routine, and unpredictable chaos. There’s the steady permanence of the land and the constant yearly cycles, both subject to the whims of the weather. Through crop rotation and new technology, the land is their legacy.

As I struggled through another mile under the unrelenting Midwestern sun,  I thought alot about my body as my legacy. I’ll never be a fitness model with a six pack or cellulite free thighs, but I could use my body to create something lasting. I thought about the women I know who have used their bodies to grow life, eventually creating an independent life beyond herself, a legacy of love, and I couldn’t help but to think of the political turmoil surrounding women’s bodies. As another dog snarled and bolted towards my path, or another man whistled/honked/or revved his engine at me, I couldn’t help to think how vulnerable my own body is. As the police officer, without a hint of levity, warned me that “folks here take their property very seriously,” I thought about how some folks seem to value the safety of their property over the safety of my body. I thought about how no matter how strong nature and hard work had made my body, there were others capable and willing to threaten it, to harm it, or even break it.  

Our bodies can’t be our legacy, they’re too transient, even sidewalks and bridges crumble or are rebuilt, and we can never truly own land.

So maybe our legacies aren’t so tangible, aren’t so direct, maybe if we do it right, they become so diffuse that they can no longer even be called our own. Maybe our legacies are our actions, the choices we make and service we give others.

Our actions are seemingly the most fleeting, but they are how we reflect ourselves in our world. Who you think you are means very little to the world. When talking about legacies - that’s what matters, not what you want to leave behind, but what others carry on. The daily kindnesses and mundane routines. The seemingly meaningless stories we tell our children or random trivial texts we send an old friend. Maybe those are the things that endure, that morph and shift and are reborn by the next generation. Maybe those are more lasting and more valuable than any plot of land or steel bridge.

Or maybe not. Maybe these actions are as ephemeral as they seem. Maybe they exist only in the moment they happen, held in the minds of just a few people for a few seconds.

But maybe that’s enough.



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On Team Hoyt: The Things I Learned from Run Free Massachusetts

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There is no practical way I can articulate all of the things I’ve learned from Team Hoyt in a single blog post because I’m not sure I can even identify all the lessons this incredible community has taught me. Still, I spent seven days last month jogging across Massachusetts and thinking about all the strength, joy, and wisdom that this family has given me and for that I’m incredibly thankful.

First and foremost, this community has taught me the power of unconditional love. A Marine of mine sent me the famous “Can only Imagine” Team Hoyt video a decade ago in Iraq. I, like everyone else, cried from the opening shot. I had always wanted kids the way most Midwestern small town girls want kids, but in watching the love between Rick and Dick, I could physically feel my own desire to love someone like that.  

This community has taught me how to give less fucks about the unimportant stuff. I noticed this years ago at a Team Hoyt San Diego dinner. Jim Pathman was giving a speech and a rider-athlete had begun to make noise, the kind of noise that normally inspire folks to turn and stare. Jim didn’t miss a beat and not a head turned. Why? Because it really didn’t matter. Following social norms and rules is all well and good, but it’s also pretty boring and wholly unnecessary. Uptight people need not apply to Team Hoyt. The families of Team Hoyt athletes have much bigger things to use their energy on, they can’t be bothered to ensure everyone else feels comfortable with who their child/brother/sister is. We should all be a little less worried about that.

Team Hoyt has taught me that we all belong. The drivers in Massachusetts have been, by far, the most courteous of all the states. Most moved lanes and slowed down to pass me, giving a little wave or flash of the headlights to tell me they saw me. I quickly noticed that if one car in the line did this, the rest would follow. As in life, it just takes one person to set the standard of kindness and grace. We’re social mimics, it’s wired in our brain to follow the examples of those around us. Luckily for me, Rick and Dick Hoyt set a standard decades ago that have inspired thousands, maybe millions, of others. If I’m going to mimic those around me, I’m glad I get to spend so many miles with Team Hoyt.

I was thankful for the kind drivers, running on back roads up and down hills and around corners was nerve-wracking at times. This was especially so on the unmarked roads where the asphalt lane and the gravel shoulder mixed with no discernible delineation between the territory of the car and domain of the sneakers. When running on a road without a white line, I felt vulnerable. I ran quickly through these sections of towns, hurriedly getting the safety of the white line, as if it was a true barrier between me and the dangers of the traffic. I see this off the road every day. We feel comfortable in lanes. We feel safe in spaces that are designated for “us,” leaving others in spaces dedicated for “them.” But all too often that white line is arbitrary. That white line didn’t keep me safe. Staying in my lane didn’t protect me.

People don’t “belong” to the space that makes everyone comfortable. People belong where they are needed. When Rick and Dick started running, people were cruel. The original Team Hoyt withstood constant criticism that they were taking up too much space and that people like Rick didn’t “belong” in races. People like Rick didn’t “belong” in college. There was an arbitrary white line between typical folks (whatever that means) and special needs folks. That line has faded thanks to them. I’ve, but once or twice, gotten a snide comment or look from folks in races. I once ran into the achilles of a woman at mile 25 of the Marine Corps Marathon - completely my fault. She turned around furious (rightfully so) and as soon as she saw Bella SHE apologized to ME for being in our way. That’s 100% a result of Rick and Dick Hoyt and the message of inclusion that they’ve inspired.

Team Hoyt shows us that life is better with fewer white lines. It shows us that we all deserve to take up space and we deserve to take up as much space as we need. Wheelchairs take up space, so we have to move a few chairs around when we go to dinner, big deal. So you have to move a little more to the left when you pass us, easy day. If it’s one thing this country has, it’s space and we should feel more comfortable taking the space we need.

Team Hoyt has taught me the power of connection in running. I started running in Jr High because I was tired of losing softball games. I wanted a solo sport where I didn’t have to rely on anyone else to win.

What an arrogant and ignorant girl I was.

I’ve rarely experienced running truly alone, and never with Team Hoyt. There is a love that happen mid-race between teammates, a mutual respect and bond between equal teammates that’s truly unbelievable unless you’ve seen or experienced it yourself. It’s humbling and empowering all at once.  

I’m never the center of attention at a Team Hoyt event. As much as I wanted to run that first mile to show how great I was, running with Team Hoyt has repeatedly reminded me that it’s not about me. I’m the support role in these teams. I come in second, always. I’m the Cal to my Ricky Bobby. There’s a freedom to that relative insignificance. It takes the spotlight and pressure of you, allows you to work for others and moreover enjoy the work.

The Team Hoyt families epitomize the ideas of resilience and resourcefulness. Team Hoyt exists because Rick and Dick decided to “adapt and overcome.” They live the concept of “rising up.” Every. Single. Day. They do this out of love. They remind us that love is the most powerful of all. Love strengthens us to endure, persevere, and thrive through struggles.  

I’ve often seen the phrase “we run for those who can’t.” And I love that concept. I love the idea of being grateful for your capabilities and for using your abilities for others. But that’s not Team Hoyt. We don’t run because our athletes can’t. We run because they can, in their own way, and together we can run. Sure it’s not always the physical act of step in front of step, but any runner will tell you that the soul of running isn’t in the footsteps. It’s in the miles ticking by and the wind, rain, sweat, and tears in your face. It’s moving through a space, taking all the space you need, breathing in all air you need, it’s feeling the power and freedom of your own body, and the joy and strength of your own soul. And with Team Hoyt, we get to share all that with another person and an entire family.  

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On Empathy: Things I Learned Run Free Georgia/CGG 155

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Last week I finished the Coastal Georgia Greenway 155 miler - a distance I’m shocked that I thought I could complete, and even more shocked that I actually completed it. Nine of us lined up at the Savannah start line early Friday morning and by 5 pm Sunday, eight had crossed the finish line - an incredible finish rate for any race let alone a largely self-supported 155 mile race along open roads. Early in the race I was lucky enough to share a few miles with Aaron Martinez, a documentary filmmaker/artist/veteran who was shooting for an episode of his docuseries “Struggle Beyond the Decade.” He mentioned that he wanted to run with us to better understand the pain, suffering, and strength of running an ultra marathon. He wanted to feel these things so that he could “better relate to those suffering.”

I thought about those words for next 100+ miles. This man was willingly suffering so that he could be better at empathy. I have heard dozens of reasons why ultra runners sign up for suffering - empathy has never been one of them. In fact, taking a step back I’m noticing how awful we all are at empathy. In ultra forums and instagram accounts I continually see the advice to “harden up,” “push through the pain,” or “suck it up,” - all great mantras to help finish an ultrarun, but all nothing even coming close to empathy. Which is shocking, this community should be full of empathy experts. We should be the most empathetic because we know not only how bad pain can hurt, but also how lonely pain can feel. The toughest part of this race wasn’t the miles, it was the miles alone. We can suffer far more together than we can solo.

During the last ten miles of this race I broke down. Like that day in the desert two years ago, I was feeling every ounce of pain, sadness, and doubt that run had to throw at me, wave after wave of raw overwhelming suffering. “Why did I come here?” I sobbed, “here” being that place of loneliness and hurt. Just like that day in New Mexico, my first instinct wasn’t to make the pain stop, it was to reach out to someone to walk me through it. Luckily this time my partner was just a few miles up the road. There was nothing he could do or say to help stop the suffering, he could just be there with me, step by painful step until it was over. He couldn’t keep me from hurting, but he kept me from hurting alone.

It was the same story for so many of the runners. It’s why when we start stumbling we reach out for a running partner. It’s why we beg our friends to come pace us through the darkest hours of the night. We are all comfortable in pain and we all know the importance of having someone with us - a knowledge and a skill that should make us the world’s best empathizers.

But all too often we fail at that very task. We are so obsessed with being tough or hard that we forget what it was like to suffer. We forget how in our darkest hours, in our heart of hearts we know it could have gone either way. We could have decided to stay in that chair instead of getting back on the road. We so easily could have convinced ourselves that the pain in our leg was something serious, something worthy of a DNF. We can lie all we want about how failure wasn’t an option, but we know that’s bullshit. Failure was and is always an option. We bask in the glory of overcoming pain without reflecting on how we moved through it, or how someone else moved through it with us.

We compare our pain, thinking that someone running a 50k doesn’t know suffering until they run a 100k, all the while someone who runs 100 or 200 milers is saying that same thing about us. Some of us have collectively decided that only the person who suffers the most deserves our respect and empathy. But don’t we know that there is no way, and no reason to compare suffering?

When I was in high school I asked our star cross country runner what it felt like to run a 15 minute three miler. I assumed being better at running meant it hurt less to run. He replied, “probably the same as it feels to you to run a 20 min three miler.” There is no way to tell but I suspect he was right, because if everyone is running their best, everyone should be hurting the same. All pain is unique, and everyone feels it in their own distinct way, but everyone feels it and so pain creates an opportunity to connect.

We can deepen and expand that connection by turning our shared suffering into empathy. There’s a powerful connection to the people who will sit in your suffering with you, to the people who recognize your pain and name it without silver linings or bullshit platitudes. These people don’t run from pain, even when it is not their own, even when it is awkward and uncomfortable. They often don’t know what to say or are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all. These people walk right into that canyon and stay with you, guiding you out when you’re ready, not when they’ve had enough. That is an overnight pacer. That is a support crew. That is empathy, and we could all stand to give a little more of it, both in our running circles and in life. Runners, especially ultra runners, are pain experts. We know it, we’re not scared of it, and sometimes we even welcome it, and sure our ability to move through suffering and pain may make us feel tougher than others, but being “tough” is self-serving and short-sighted. I once wrote that inspiration isn’t ours to keep, and I feel the same about strength. It is time to transform our toughness to empathy, to help others move through pain, to crew and pace the loved ones and the strangers in our lives as so many have crewed for us.

And this has been one of my favorite lessons of all.



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Things I learned: Run Free South Carolina

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I moved to Beaufort, SC after my TransCon in 2017. Depending on what story I’m telling it was to finish my dissertation without the distractions of friends or a job or to spend much desired time with a man I love. I won’t lie, I hated it. As a liberal midwesterner, recent Southern California transplant, the lowcountry was just about everything I grown to hate in my adult life - slow talking, humidity, and the vestiges of institutional racism. Worse, when I heard someone tell me how lucky I was to live there, how they loved Charleston, Savannah, or even Beaufort I felt like there was something wrong with me. While I’ve always been proud of being a Land of Lincoln Yankee, I began to think that I’d become a bit of a northern snob - refusing to see the beauty among the problems. I thought if I loved Rainbow Row and the blooming plantations along my drive it meant I was ignoring the ugliness and violence of the slavery that built them. If I exalted the simple southern life of the residents I was whitewashing the injustice poverty that surrounded them. I saw the pink and blues of Rainbow Row and the slow sweet southern drawl as cheap paint and a faux romantic melody covering up the pain and systematic problems of the Palmetto State.

Then I took a long hike with a Pat Conroy book and discovered that just because some folks are willing to overlook the problems because of the romance, doesn’t mean that the romance isn’t worthy. More than that, the son of the Great Santini taught me that the south isn’t one or the other, it’s both. Conroy so elegantly captures how South Carolina made him, for better or worse, into the man he is today. He is equally passionate about the pain and suffering of the south as he is about the dogged resilience of the place. He makes no apologies for the misogyny, racism, and violence of the place, but is a steadfast champion of the good that comes from the saltwater marshes. He refuses to cloak the deep complicated love of the Lowcountry in platitudes about shrimp boils and sweet tea, or even apologize for loving such a flawed place.

People, places, hell America is complicated. Our nation is full of hard-working privileged groups, kind-hearted folks with racist beliefs, and genius, sometimes misogynistic men. It’s complicated to parse out that nuance, hard to hold those two ideas in your head. Luckily ultra-running is the master of cognitive dissonance - providing the highest of highs and lowest of lows physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s the maker of great legs and mangled feet. The beauty and pain of an ultra-runner and equally acute and not always distinct. My South Carolina crossing has made me both stronger and more broken than I was before. It’s left me humble and confident. Exhausted and re-energized.

It’s not about taking the bad with the good. It’s not even about maintaining a ledger of positive and negative, constructing a rational decision based on an complicated algorithm or equation. Good and bad don’t fit onto a balance sheet, and acknowledging one can do nothing to negate the other.

So this state, and the Lowcountry in particular, has reminded me that there is beauty and ugliness everywhere.  We can celebrate the former while working to erase the latter. In fact the very presence of the beauty is just cause to continue the fight against ugly because we know just how good something can be. The dirty, messy, gritty marshes of man, and all our simplicities and complexities, are thriving here. When we love something, we love it wholly. We don’t ignore the parts that bring us pain, we point them out, work to fix them with grace and empathy. We care for the soul of a person or place and nurture its growth.

South Carolina will never be a home for me, but it has been both my haven and my launching pad for the past year and a half. It has given me a place to hide out, explore what’s next and ultimately return to the road, chasing that triangle. Most importantly, it’s challenged me to accept that things don’t fit neatly into good or bad. Runs are never wholly pleasant, people are never wholly heros or villians, and places are rarely wholly good or bad. South Carolina has given me exactly what I needed, when I needed it, and forced me to grow a little in the process. For that, I love her.

More about the route, cause, and results can be found here.

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Hierarchy and Humility

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Today I finish my service year as an AmeriCorps VISTA, a (sightly) paid position at a literacy non-profit here in Charleston, SC. The idea of the AmeriCorps VISTA program is to take service-minded folks and put them where they are most needed - in the poorest communities of the country, a sort of domestic Peace Corps if you will. The program promises those in service a challenge - and it delivered. Aside from the practical challenge of a long commute (1.5 hours each way), and the strategic challenges of trying to break the systems of poverty one struggling reader at a time, this job challenged in a much more profound and personal way - it humbled me.

Over the past year I’ve been assigned tasks that I haven’t done in a decade - stuffing envelopes, making copies, dropping off supplies. I describe my duties to my military friends as “LCpl work.” I didn’t mind the nug work, sometimes even welcomed it, I understood that major projects fail or succeed in those details. Still, I’ll admit, every once in a while I would think to myself, “I have a freaking PhD, what am I doing cutting another 100 sheets of paper?” or I would bristle when my 20 something supervisor encouraged me to sign up for her “How to do your taxes” workshop.

It was especially pronounced when I returned from drill weekends - going from boss to subordinate overnight. I specifically remember a phone call from a major supporter in which they somewhat curtly instructed me to help unload a car. I was in the middle of something and instinctively put my hand up to say “Wait 1,” like I do with my Marines, when I realized that I was in a different position in this hierarchy. I was in the back of the pack for this group run.

It was then when I realized that for my entire adult life, I have been a boss. Sure I’ve always had a boss, an XO or CO, but I’ve also always had a shop or domain in which I have control over the daily routines of not only myself, but my subordinates as well. I think, for the most part, the men and women I’ve been in charge of would give my leadership skills positive reviews, but I have to confess that I have forgotten what it’s like to be a subordinate or junior and that undoubtedly led to a lack of humility that I likely needed replenished.

While running has continually humbled me, often when I need it the most, I’ve been missing the specific brand of humility that comes with filling a lower position in an hierarchy. Running can’t give that because by its nature, running is a flattened hierarchy.

It’s not unheard of for football teams to go undefeated for a season, but rarely does a runner win every race. Golf pros play on the best groomed courses, while professional marathoners run the exact same course as the guy or gal who comes in dead last. I’m likely never going to play basketball with Michael Jordan, but I’ve run a race with Meb, technically I raced him. (He won).

Sure there are “better” runners than others - but what does that even mean? How do you rank and file runners? Speed? Endurance? Number of races run? Won? One of the first lessons I learned in running was that in 99.9% of the races I’ll ever run, someone will beat me. It’s all relative. In that way running breeds both confidence and humility. The two not only balance each other, but amplify each other. True confidence breeds humility, because it strips away the need for external validation. Being confident in yourself, at its core, and is a way of saying “I’m enough,” and when you know you’re enough, you can slog through the miles, wade through the mundane details of whatever work you’re doing, because your worth isn’t tied to your job title or finishing time. Don’t get me wrong, I love competition, and achievement, and being recognized for hard work, but I’m more and more sure that hard work happens at all levels. Your last place or current rung of the corporate ladder doesn’t make your any more or less valuable as a human being.

As tough as this job was, as there were certainly times I thought I was minutes away from quitting, I’m a better boss and better person for it. To celebrate I’m going to pack away the office supplies and lace up the tennis shoes to see what else South Carolina can teach me about its people and my own humility and growth.   



Run Free Run 2.0

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I’ve hidden out in my South Carolina castle for long enough, licking my wounds, reflecting on last year, and trying my damnest to cross “Finish PhD” off my “to do” list. It’s time for the next big thing. 
 
Over the next few years I’m going to run across all 50 states, even Alaska. 
 
I ran across the country in 2017 to give back to the communities that had given me a home away from home. And yes, a little for myself too, but now I want to help the communities that are important to you – my earliest and fiercest supporters. So my next goal is to run across all 50 states (even Alaska). I’ve never been a huge fan of hard and fast rules, but I do have some guidelines. 
 

  • Each state has to be continuous – meaning I start where I stopped the day before and no more than a single rest day in between 

  • Each route must be border to border. 

  • Each route must be a good faith route – meaning I can’t cross a corner and call it good. (Guess that means I have to do Texas and California all over again J)

  • When possible, I’ll run through each state capital.

  • And here’s the big one – each run must benefit someone besides myself. This can be a charity, an organization, or even an individual. I founded Run Free to benefit veterans, gold star families, and special needs athletes – but we’re not restricted to those groups. If you know of a family that might need help rebuilding after a fire, or paying for an unforeseen injury or illness, let me know. If you have a local organization that is changing lives in Montana – connect me!

  • These runs are to build communities. If you think I just absolutely must pass through the largest butter cow in Iowa, let me know. If you have a special date that you’d like a run built around, let me know. 

 
Three things I’m asking of you: 

 
I’ve always said that when I run Boston, it would be because I qualified, but when Kathy of Team Hoyt asked if I wanted to be part of the Team Hoyt Charity Team for Boston 2019, I instantly said yes. How could I not? Team Hoyt has been an integral part of my running life and my life in general. It’s brought me to my best friends, best races, and best self. I’m humbled and completely stoked to be running with the official Team Hoyt charity team this year. But first, I’ll run from the western border to Boston, finishing up with the Boston Marathon on Monday April 15 – you can see my route here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1LLDYjPgHbdHM6P2zUMte0_UKR-aHvYhH&usp=sharing
 
Perhaps even more challenging is raising an ambitious $6,500 before stepping up to the start line, which is where I’m asking you for help. Every dollar goes to The Hoyt Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to helping raise disability awareness and helping those folks like Rick and Bella and the 1000s of athletes like them achieve the joy of running, biking, swimming, and competing. Through the foundation, The Hoyt Foundation supports research and programming for the Easter Seals and the Children’s Hospital in Boston, along with other local organizations. Check out all the great work they do at http://www.teamhoyt.com/The-Hoyt-Foundation.html or below!
 
Please consider a donation to support this wonderful mission and my efforts to run across all 50 states by donating here: https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/the-hoyt-foundation-boston-2019/margaretseymour

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Things I learned...Daufuskie Island 39.3 Miler

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I am and will always be a runner.

No matter when my last run was. So much of my life has been tied up with running. Running hasn’t been my whole life, it hasn’t even been around for my entire life - I’ve take long hiatuses from my tennis shoes, and I’m certainly never going to make it anything more than a hobby, but running and the lessons I’ve learned from those miles have been woven so intricately into my very being. As I ran along the dirt path, gnats nipping at my legs, I was instantly transported to a back country road in Oklahoma, so red it looked like someone had dyed the dirt. The sound of my footfall on the wooden bridge across the 9th hole felt so much like the cross country races of my high school days that I swear I was wearing racing flats. I even felt myself change my gait ever so slightly to account for the spikes that used to adorn the soles of my feet. The short mile along the beach, with its white sand and unfiltered blue of the ocean looked like the boardwalk of Virginia Beach and the coastline of Southern California. The whiffs of diesel, a rare scent among the fresh air of the island, snapped me back to long early runs in the deserts of the Middle East. Running is a time warp. Settling into the miles means opening up to all the miles and lessons of before, and for that I am a much better and happier person.

Sometimes it’s ok to just run happy.

I remember seeing that Brooks logo on a headband years ago at an ultra-race and becoming irrationally annoyed. Run happy? What’s happy about 100 miles? What the fuck is happy about slick mud, wet shorts, and bloody chafed thighs? I’m not exactly a happy bouncing runner. I’m much more a grunting (or whimpering) complainer who tries her best to slog through the miles. Running has so often be a therapy for me and we don’t go to therapy to be happy. I’ve written before about running with my demons, but sometimes they stay away, and I’m ok with that. Sometimes it’s ok to set aside the problems you’re tackling and just enjoy the run. I’m not deluded enough to think I’ve beaten them all, I can still feel all the insecurities, pain, and regret, but I can deal with those later. Daufuskie was all about running happy, bouncing along to the new Mary Poppins soundtrack, laughing and singing in pure joy - at that’s perfectly fine with me.

Ultra-running is not hygge

Despite the joy that comes from logging more miles that you deserve, running is the antithesis to hygge. Hygge, and I’m oversimplifying here, is a Danish concept of coziness. It’s candles, cocoa, and comfort food. It is not sweat, blisters, and other bodily fluids. Long-distance running is at the opposite end of cozy. It doesn’t make you feel warm and snuggly, but it does make you feel free and alive. It doesn’t put you in front of a fire in a cottage during a thunderstorm, it puts you among the windy, rainy, wild nature of outside. It’s not mellow, it’s electricity.  

At some point of every long race I’ve ever run, I’ve felt this “runner’s high,” a moment where the burn in my legs is transformed into a fire in my chest, where every heartbeat sends voltage to my muscles, where I can’t stop my smile or my arms from spreading wide, palms up to soak in every last drop of whatever this energy is. I assume it’s coming from sunshine or the trees because it doesn’t feel like anything I had felt for the past 25 miles, it’s not foreign, it’s rather familiar actually, but it certainly doesn’t feel like mine. I felt like I could run on it forever, but knowing I couldn’t, I had to decide how fast I want to burn it. I knew I was taking a risk to let it consume me and push me to go faster and faster, so I had to decide how far and fast I let this new energy push me. I’m a relatively slow runner. I’m not winning any races and have rarely looked at my split times. I can’t even tell you my PRs. So for me, the decision is easy. I’m willing to take a hit on the back splits, to pay for this later, so I always let it this high carry me. Those five minutes or 50 secs are worth it every time. It’s a perk of being an unstructured mid to back of the pack runner. Daufuskie Island was no different.

Suffering is like riding a bike.

There’s a unique familiarity to the pain of running. For me it’s the chafing at the tag of my shorts at mile 7, the ache at the top of my foot around mile 14, and the tight knot that forms in between my shoulder blades, appearing without fail as soon as I hit mile 27. I know these things are coming, and they do hurt, so why don’t I ever put vaseline on my low back? Or tape the top of my foot? It’s not because I’m too lazy or forget, I remember each time. It’s because I look forward to those moments as much as any mile marker as proof of my work, of my progress. They are consistent, and there’s a comfort in consistency. Being familiar with pain, comfortable in it, is an incredible coping mechanism, in running and in life. Being able to sit in pain allows us to accept the inevitable suffering of the moment, not wasting our energy fighting it. It allows us to remain calm and navigate the hurt. It tells us that we will survive, our past suffering is a testament to our ability to endure our current wounds.

But this familiarity can be dangerous too. It can lead us to believe that pain is always the price we pay, that it is what we deserve. After I completed an Ironman race years ago someone texted me the next day and told me to “enjoy that burn, you earned it.” While I love this sentiment for sports - the idea that aching is a badge of accomplishment, a sign of growth - the relationship between pain and progress is much more complicated than that.

Our ability to endure suffering, and our notion that all suffering makes us stronger, can lead us to stay in soul-crushing jobs and toxic relationships, long after we should leave. It allows us to push through agony without ever dealing with the source. It can even lead us to seek out our torment, returning time and again to a place of suffering not in spite of the pain, but because of it. Suffering then ceases to be unavoidable byproduct of pursuing a goal, and becomes the goal itself, and that serves no one. Suffering in life, and running, is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be constant. It is a part of life, but it doesn’t have to be a part of all of life.



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On Being Busy

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If you can fill the unforgiving minute, With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.
— Rudyard Kipling, "If"

The end of 2018 was pretty packed. I could list the number of flights, trips, events, races, and other requirements and electives that took my time, energy, and money, but then I’d be doing two of the things I hate seeing in others – justifying our “busy” and being a martyr. I’d be using my calendars to both compete with and plea for sympathy and admiration from others. We all know these folks, and have probably even been them. You know the people who try to match “Oh you think you’re busy – try X…” How obnoxious. Or perhaps even worse – the people who constantly clamor for attention or sympathy from others on how overworked, underpaid, overtasked and stressed they/you are.

To make it worse, we complement our own need for validation with judgement of others’ “busy.” We scoff at the single gal because “You don’t know what busy is until you have kids,” and roll our eyes at the stay-at-home moms because “You don’t even have a job – I raise kids AND work.” We dismiss the full-time graduate student who got a higher scored on the latest assignment because “well some of us have to work for a living,” and judge the athlete with “It must be nice to be able to work-out every day.” In all this we fail to acknowledge our own power and agency over our hours and then spend more precious time comparing or judging others. Our busys are different, and they are our own. 

Don’t let me preach to you. I do both of those obnoxious things routinely and have for years. One instance in particular sticks out. I was in a bar in Hampton Roads with a friend from college. I hadn’t seen her in years, she had just gotten back from mission work in Micronesia. She had made the four-hour drive to visit over the weekend. I was dominating the conversation, telling her all the great and awesome things I had been doing when I realized I hadn’t posted my homework for my military school. “Shit,” I exclaimed, holding up a hand like I would do to a junior Marine interrupting me in a writing trance, “I have to do this, I totally forgot to post this week.” I spent the next few minutes completing the “requirement” while she patiently sipped her cocktail. When I finished I instantly launched back into how I was so busy with a million things going on. She waited for me to finish and then simply replied, “why did you sign up for all that?” 

She wasn’t impressed with my busy schedule. She didn’t admire my ability (or mediocre attempts at) juggling multiple projects. She didn’t give me pity for my lack of sleep or stress level. She genuinely couldn’t understand why I was putting myself in a position to be miserable – to be anxious and unhappy and to ignore a close friend during a visit. My situation wasn’t to be admired, it was to be corrected. 

I was annoyed for a minute – I mean didn’t she get that I HAD to do all that stuff? “Must be nice to be able be so chill Steph, but some of us have to work,” I snapped in my head. 

Then I realized she was 100% right. I didn’t need to take that class – at least not at that time. It wasn’t required for a few more years – but I’ve been overloading my calendar since I was 16 and thought it was just what I was supposed to do. I often look back in pride at my workload as a high schooler. I worked summers in the fields, waking up early to beat the afternoon heat. Showering at a friend’s house before my second shift as a server at Steak ‘n’ Shake. I took pride in seeing my “hours worked” on my pay stubs and I liked the freedom the money gave me as a teenager; but, more than anything I liked the work. I like the challenge greeting me at the start of each day and the exhaustion that put me to sleep at night. I loved the feel of progress and creation, of a day of minutes well spent. I didn’t needto work that much - my parents provided what I needed, but I loved the work. Ironically enough, a gift and sometimes curse from my parents.

But somewhere along the way my love of work had turned into a love of admirationfor my work. I needed that validation and awe of “how impressive,” or “oh my god, you’re so busy,” or my favorite “I don’t know how you do it.” All ways of telling me that I was busier than the gal next to me. I could do more, sacrifice more, and that made me better. The busier I was, the more important I felt, especially when I told myself I HAD to do everything on my calendar.

When the truth is – we are all as busy as we want to be. Our schedules should serve us, our values, our relationships, and our communities. They shouldn’t serve our egos. That’s what my friend was saying when she refused to give me nothing but bewilderment as I lamented about the pressure and duties of my life. As if she couldn’t understand why I would allow, or even seek out, those things that made me miserable and then look to her to tell me good job on making choices that led to both me ignoring her during a reunion and seemingly made me miserable. 

This isn’t a post about slowing down or taking it easy. I deeply admire those folks out there working hard – especially when it is in service to others. It’s about owning our time and our choices with it. It’s about remembering that we are all given the exact same number of minutes in each day. It’s about reminding myself with a few exceptions, my obligations are so often my own choices. Most of all it’s about remembering that busy for busy’s sake (and then expecting praise for it) is just silly – especially when it costs so much. 

So the past two months have been busy. I’ve been stressed and I’ve undoubtedly taken at least some of that stress out on my love ones – I’m working on it. I’ll probably always have an unrealistic to do list, agree to too many projects and jobs. I’ll certainly always fall short of my ambitions and teeter right up to burnout. But it’s mybusy. I own every overpacked minute, every color-coded task list, and late-night procrastinated deadline. (I’m actually writing this right now instead of the two final papers I have due in 6 hours). Just like the young girl heading out to the fields, windows down and music turned up, I’m rediscovering the joy of work, independent of external validation or arbitrary competition. I certainly still enjoy the admiration of my friends and loved ones, but I’m working on getting those things from being kind or taking the time to be a good friend – not just for getting another thing crossed off the to-do list. Most of all I’m working on making my minutes, hours, and days mine – and then reminding myself that I did. 

 

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A Year Later

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A year ago today I hobbled into the Atlantic Ocean. I had spent the last 99 days running, walking, or limping across the country. I had rolled under fences, hopped over gates, missed turns, and sobbed along the back roads, dirt trails, and highways of the nation. I had spent the majority of the time just wanting it to be over. And just like that, I was done.

Months prior, on the eve of the run, my running muse and guardian angel Anna had told me to find a mantra, and when times got bad to repeat that mantra over and over until quitting was no longer an option, until the pain and suffering abated just enough to let me press forward. She told me to make it personal, that chasing goals of community and inspiration, to run for the athletes, veterans, and gold star families would be enough to keep me going through any number of challenges, but once I got so far into my head, external reasons would fade away. My mind would play tricks on me and tell me all the ways I could accomplish those goals even after quitting. I had to have a core, something that would remain cemented in my mind, and my gut  when the haze of the pain and overwhelming confusion swirled, I needed a core to keep me moving forward, a desperate need that only the sweet salty Atlantic Ocean could assuage, something that could only be achieved through the journey.

Luckily for me, I listened to her, because she ended up being very right. In searching for my core, I kept coming back to this one idea - I wanted to be the girl on the other side of the run.

I didn’t really know what she would look like, or what was so special about her, but I wanted to be her. I wanted this journey in my memories, in my list of adventures, part of the fiber of my character. I wanted to be a woman who ran across the country.

When I finished I felt underwhelmed. I didn’t feel transformed. Coming out the ocean I felt happy, my face hurt from smiling so much, I felt relieved and grateful but I wasn’t sure that I was that girl. I sure didn’t feel different, but I was.

Change for me is gradual and comes only after both the work and the reflection. I can look back on big watershed moments in my life - where I chose to go to college, joining the Marine Corps, or certain relationships, and see them as major factors or turning points - but I’ve never changed in an instant. Those points, and this run, didn’t spur instantaneous growth. It was hard won over time and miles, words and thoughts. Slowly but surely, I got my transformation.

For one, I feel more connected. I have this memory bank, 2850 miles or so, of tiny details. When you’re covering that amount of mileage on foot, you notice the little things, turns out you also remember them. Something as simple as a wheat field reminds me of a mile in Texas. I had convinced myself that the blowing wheat was a line of cheering fans and I jogged down the road giving fives to the feathery heads.

I feel especially connected to cows. I won’t lecture you all on the evils of meat, but I feel a calm when I pass cattle along a highway, like I’m visiting old friends.

I’ve changed in less enjoyable ways too, I’m much slower and heavier. Running doesn’t feel like it used to, and maybe it never will. Often last year’s run feels like the life of another person. It’s not constantly on my mind, and I’ll go days without thinking about it, so it’s a nice surprise to be reminded that that woman was me and those miles were mine.

Despite being slower, I  feel more confident - like i have this little secret. I haven’t achieved zen by any standard, I still stress at little stuff. I still get nervous and overwhelmed, but I’m a bit calmer. I’m calmer because I’m confident I can handle even the really big risky adventures.

Most of all, I’m stronger. I’ve written about the utility of pain & suffering before, but back then I thought suffering made me stronger by making me toughening me up. It doesn’t. The pain and suffering of that run made me stronger, braver, not by making me tougher, but rather by making me softer. It didn’t build me armor, it let me take it off.

Brene Brown talks about the strength of vulnerability, and I cannot agree more. Brene talks about being vulnerable to others and to the world, but I’ll argue you should also be vulnerable to yourself, letting your thoughts move where you might not want them to go, acknowledging the dreams and ideas that scare you.

Going through those 99 days, running the gamut of physical and emotional sensations, taught me that I can suffer, that my demons may hurt, they may be as stubborn as I am, and they may never go away, but they won’t kill me. They won’t even beat me. Knowing that, I’m less scared of them. I don’t have to defend against them, I can stand there or even run straight toward them, unprotected and unafraid, because they’ve hit me before, and it hurt. It was terrifying and the memory still catches in my throat and squeezes my heart a bit. But I’m not scared of them. I know them well. They’re familiar, and it’s harder to fear the familiar. They’re mine and I know them as well as they know me. In a way, I’m even a little grateful for them.

They helped make me the girl on the other side of the run.

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To All the Men I've Passed Before

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Last week a man, a stranger, stopped me mid-run to give me friendly advice for which I neither asked nor needed. While this was a mild annoyance, it gave me pause. I thought about similar events - the man who told me I didn’t have enough water for the desert (I did), the man who offered me advice on how to scale a fence (a tip so basic it should have been obvious that I had tried it),  It reminded me of men who told me that running is bad for me, that marathons will ruin my knees, that I should lift weights if I want to be thin (assuming that being thin has to be the my only goal in fitness - but that’s another post).

The worst part of these exchanges is the absolute certainty these men exhibit--an almost religious faith in their own baseless, “expert” opinions. How completely confident, how arrogant they were in both content and delivery, like I should be so grateful that they had descended from upon high their pre-workout Heaven to save me from my athletic naivete. Now I’ll admit, I’m a feminist, so I’m conditioned to recognize this type of mansplaining, but I couldn’t think of a single time that a woman gave me unsolicited opinions delivered as divine law.

Suffice to say, I have had enough of this shit. So this post is for you, men so inclined to offer me your unsolicited advice. While I can’t speak for all women, or even the majority, I can give you some friendly advice on two things I wholeheartedly want you to stop doing.

First, stop giving unsolicited advice. Stop. Just stop. If I want a coach, I’ll hire one. If I want free fitness advice, I’ll ask  friends, or Google, or one of the 10,000 insta-fitness-stars on the Internet. If I have my headphones in, you should only speak to me if I dropped cash on the floor or if you need some advice.

Second, and here is the really important one, don’t stare. Don’t catcall.

Again, for the people in the back:

Do.

Not.

Catcall.

If you think it’s a compliment, it’s not. When you scream or honk and stare at me, it doesn’t inspire confidence, it doesn’t validate me, and I don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t make me feel wanted or attractive or valuable.

It does make me feel small.

It makes me feel like all the work I’ve put into my body  has been reduced to how you feel about it. It makes me feel embarrassed about my body that is working so hard. It makes me feel like I’m wearing too little, that all the wrong parts are bouncing. It makes me want to cover myself in shame.

It makes me feel fear.

Your shouts and stares may seem harmless to you, but they scare me. They scare me because they remind me that if you wanted to act on those words, you could.

As strong as I may be, as far as I may be able to run, if you wanted to hurt me - you probably could. For the those few moments, you remind me of my vulnerability in this world..

Even if you would never act on your comments, if you consider yourself a protector of or champion for women, your comments tell me that you’ve decided, if only for a moment, that my body is for you - for your judgement or pleasure or entertainment.

I am here to take back my power. I am here to tell you that my body, the work I have put into it, its muscles, its cellulite, its curves, none of it is for your viewing pleasure.

It’s not for you. It’s not to turn you on. It’s not for you to determine what number I am or if you would “smash or pass.”

It’s for me. It’s for the lover of my choosing. It’s for the athletes who loan me their spirit during runs. It’s for running across the country or down the street. It’s for doing work that inspires people. It’s for racing my nieces and nephews and other little humans. It’s for my children, should I have them some day. It’s for carrying me from one place to the next, for lifting things and keeping me healthy and happy, for teaching me about myself and the world.

It’s for any number of things that I choose, but it’s certainly not for you.

You can admire my form from afar. You can respect my work. You can even ask me about what I’m doing (again, not with the headphones in), but you should never, ever honk/yell/whistle at me.

And if you think whatever advice you have to say is so important that you need to stop me mid-run - don’t. It’s not. Stop yourself, not me.

And be sure to tell your friends.



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Learning to Run Again

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As as toddler I’m not sure I ever “learned” to run. I was walking and then, like most kids, I was running. I’ve returned to this concept quite a bit the past few weeks, telling myself that running is easy - toddlers do it, but it sure feels like I’m learning to run again.

I have been running, with a few breaks, for almost 20 years. My relationship with running has been one of my most committed, most stable, and healthiest relationships I’ve ever had. I’ve said it time and time again, the lessons I’ve learned out on the trail or along some back country road have undoubtedly shaped my relationships with my friends, co-workers, and loved ones. But I’ve found the reverse is true over the past few weeks - the lessons I’ve learned from my relationships with others have been critical to reigniting my love affair with running. Here are three ways how:

Consistent Commitment

While there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of marriage (and to all my married folks out there making it work👏👏), I’ve known for a while that it is not for me. There are a number of reasons I prefer to stay legally single, but one of the biggest is the complacency that often comes with a legally binding relationship. While I can’t speak from experience, many of my married friends will attest to this. For some, staying in the relationship becomes a default rather than an active choice. For me, I prefer a relationship where we have to choose, every day to stay together.

There’s nothing legally binding me to running. Each morning, or hot Beaufort afternoon, when I drag myself out to the road, I’m making an active choice, that’s what learning to run again requires, not just a one-time commitment, but a choice every day to work on the relationship. Sure it becomes a habit, and thus the choice is easy to make (and if I wake up early enough I can start running before my conscious brain is fully awake), but it’s a choice to stick with it.

Communication

Anyone who has been in a relationship more than a month will tell you that communication is key. It’s important to clearly communicate our wants, thoughts, and feelings, but we often forget the other half of communicating - listening. Learning to run again has tested my ability to listen to my body, to try and understand if my lungs and legs are really telling me to slow down or if they’re just working hard. Each run is a balance between pushing forward and pulling back. It’s about being patient with my pace, steady through the tough parts and careful not to blow up when I catch a second wind.

Each mile brings on a new conversation with myself. On most days I have to remind myself how much joy running brings. Sometimes I need to listen to my body when it says it needs a break. Other times I have to call bullshit when my body tries to lie and say it’s too tired to make it that last mile. When I’m frustrated and confused by my lack of progress, when mile 2 doesn’t feel any better than mile 1, when I can’t settle in for whatever reason - I have to remind myself that confusion is just the state of things sometimes, and that I can’t know everything all the time. I can’t force something out of sheer will, running gets a vote and my body gets a vote, and they’re allowed to keep their mysteries until they’re ready to release them.

Deep Work and Flow

Most of all, learning to run again reminds me that all work (and I think we can all agree that relationships are work) alternates between deep work and flow. Cal Newport wrote a whole book on deep work - that type of work that happens when the brain is singularly focused on the task at hand, ignoring all other distractions or competing priorities. Flow, on the other hand is described as trance-like work, where the mind shuts off and the work comes naturally without focus and with little perceived effort. In running that sounds a lot like runner’s high. Historically, my running has occurred in the flow stage much more than the deep work phase. Running has been an outlet, a hobby for me. Sure there have been runs that have been a lot of hard work (ahem all last summer), but I know that runner’s high is just over the next peak or around the next turn.


But this time, this comeback has been all about deep work, and that’s ok, deep work is part of a relationship. A relationship in flow is fun, but it’s not sustainable. Deep work is where you get growth, where you determine if the relationship is worth it, and where you remind yourself of why you’re in it in at all. Deep work is where you recommit.


So each run I tell myself that I’m not only rebuilding my relationship with running, step by literal step, but I’m also practicing my relationship skills. For a woman who spent the first decade of her adult life fiercely single, I could use the practice.






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On Goals

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I finished my dissertation this week, nothing left but the shouting (i.e. administrative requirements) until I’m officially Dr. Margaret M. Seymour, PhD. I’ve been dreaming, sometimes literally, of this moment for the past five years. Arguably, since I was a toddler telling my PaPa what I wanted to be when I grew up - I meant a medical doctor but hey, some things change! Now, it’s here. I can mark it off every single one of my “to-do” lists (don’t ask how many I have). I can clear that nagging little task from the back of my mind. Ahh the weight is lifted. I’ve summited the mountain, crossed the finish line, hit the other side of the journey.

Except it doesn’t feel that way at all.

The feeling reminds me of my first ultra marathon - the Jetty 2 Jetty Ultra, 35 miles of beach running along the Florida oceanfront in May. Every excruciating moment leading up to the finish line I swore I’d never do it again. I tried to burn the feelings of pain, suffering, and helplessness into my brain, as the Florida sun burnt into my skin. Three days later I looked back and thought “huh, that wasn’t that hard.”

It’s a feeling I know I share with other runners. When I finished the transcon last year, on the drive home I texted my running muse/mentor/spirit guide. She confirmed, “I thought I’d feel like I just did this great big thing. But I didn’t feel that way at all.”

“In between goals is a thing called life that has to be lived and enjoyed.” I don’t know where I first heard some version of that quote, but the internet tells me it came from Sid Caesar. That same internet tells me Sid was a famous television actor from the 1950s, but I only know him as the Coach from Grease. While I’m sure he was full of insightful one-liners (“Not just running! Something that needs endurance! Something that needs stamina! Like, long-distance running! Cross-country running!”), I always hated this one. I always thought it was a little dismissive of goals. Too carefree, too west coast for me. I’m a goal kind of gal after all, usually setting one before I’ve finished the last three. I thought it was telling us all to stop setting goals, that it was more important to just enjoy life directionless and wandering. Maybe that’s what ole Sid meant, but maybe not.

I thought about that quote this week as I started getting excited about my next goal. It made me stop and wonder if I should put down my to-do lists and just float.

But then I remembered a recent studyI had read about how the pursuit of goals is more rewarding than accomplishing them - that running the race is more pleasurable than finishing it. The study argues that it’s not the accomplishment, it’s the striving. It really is the struggle, the journey, no matter how difficult or long, no matter how many setbacks - that’s what our animal brains and bodies crave. It’s the pursuit that gives us happiness. Or as one researcherputs it “of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important.”

Seeking, not finding, gives you a high. Maybe that is what keeps me restless, maybe that is what keeps us all restless to some degree. More importantly, maybe that the fact that seeking is more pleasurable than achieving is the best news for ourselves and our society. If we’re biologically wired to keep seeking new information, new experiences, and new goals, we’re predisposed to chasing dreams. Chasing dreams is not only what keeps us alive, it’s what keeps our society progressing. Sure, taking a breather is good now and then. Rest is critical to growth - but we shouldn’t let rest become resting on our laurels.

So maybe life IS what happens between goals, but only if we have goals. It’s not the drifting of a feather we seek, it is the direction of the arrow. In seeking our goals, more so than achieving them, we find our own passions, strengths, and limitations. In seeking, we learn. In all of my “what I learned” posts, so very few lessons came to me at the finish line. My education didn’t come at the end, my lessons were tucked into the journey, amongst the suffering, the disappointments, the setbacks, the progress, and the frustrations.

As this educational journey wraps up, I’m left wanting more - more learning, more striving, and yes more achieving, if not from books then from the road - a different sort of “coursework”. My extended rest is over. It’s time to seek the next goal.

 

 

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On Communication

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I concluded an international exercise last week after three weeks of working with multiple western and African partner nations. My department worked with folks from at least seven different nationalities, of various training backgrounds, and under a U.K. led planning process. It. Was. Tough. I left each day exhausted, barely able to haul my body down for lackluster dinner and my allowed two glasses of wine. It took me a while to understand what was draining my energy, it was not just the pace of the work, or even the frustrations that inevitably come along with any multi-national military exercise, it was the energy it took to communicate – across languages, cultures, ranks, and military specialties. The energy, time, and patience it took to communicate relatively complex ideas and tasks to senior members, to work on systems that didn’t talk to each other, and to complete the tasks I was trying to communicate on a rush schedule left me depleted. Communication is exhausting.

The basics of communication theory state that a person with a message must encode that message and then transmit it. The audience receives the coded message and then must decode that message. While the process is only three steps, there’s a whole lot of room for error there – starting with how the transmitter chooses to encode his or her message.

The most basic of signifiers are words. The words of a language are literally code – if the five letters c-h-a-i-r conjure up the same image for you as they do for me – we speak the same language. If we don’t literally speak the same language, or use the same code, it becomes nearly impossible to communicate. 

But words are not the only ways we communicate. We use tone, pitch, speed, and volume to add something to our words. We, sometimes unintentionally, change the meaning of our coded messages with our body language or facial expressions. We use those tells, learned over time, when we decode the messages of our loved ones. If we don’t know someone, however, it’s hard to know their tells. How do I know if that Greek is yelling or just talking? Is the quiet Chadian angry at the brief feedback or just reserved? Is Holly mad at me or is that just her RBF?

As hard as the process of communication is, it is even harder to choose to communicate – truthfully and directly. Communication isn’t just hard to do, it’s hard to choose. It’s hard because it can leave us vulnerable. Speaking our truth opens us up, and leaves us open. In order to communicate, to really communicate our feelings or thoughts, we have to first identify them. Then we have to expose them. It’s hard to admit to yourself that you feel jealous or hurt. It’s even harder to tell someone how you feel, sometimes harder the more you care about them. When you communicate your true feelings, you put yourself at risk for more hurt through ridicule, dismissal, or rejection.

Identifying and communicating your feelings is often considered weak. Those who do so are often labelled as “sissy,” or “touchy-feely,” or my personal favorite “snowflakes.” (Don’t worry, I’ll stay off my political and social soapbox on this post). Growing up in the Midwest, I’m very familiar with the social and cultural boundaries on communicating true feelings – especially when those feelings are sadness, inadequacy, hurt, loneliness, or rejection. I tease that we like to shove all those emotions deep down and cover them with whiskey until they all transform into anger, like a reverse coal to diamond process. From there we Midwesterners let that block of newly formed anger sit in our souls, blocking us from true connection. Or we let it explode at the family gathering of our choice, like lava searing any connections we do have. Neither option sounds great when you think about it, but they do protect you from feeling vulnerable, and at the time of pain we often chose protection over connection. 

It no wonder why we often choose to shut down, to break communication, to give each other the silent treatment or end friendships. With all the energy it takes, all the risks for miscommunication and added pain, why communicate at all? 

Because communication is an absolutely necessary component of any relationship. Without it, we fail to form even the most basic of relationships, forget about any of the real, deep connections that we are all programmed to desire.  Without connections, who would we be? Miserably lonely people, scared of others and scared of ourselves, wiping our Cheeto stained hands on a sagging couch while we throw an empty whiskey bottle at the nightly news. Or even handsomely dressed in a richly decorated McMansion with no one to share celebratory champagne, or grieving tears with. Same sad outcome, different W-2. 

Communication is how we share ideas, strengthen bonds, and even know ourselves. It’s how we grow ourselves and our connections. It’s how we build communities. In fact, those two concepts are coded the same, both from same root word meaning to “make common.” It’s how we make friends and keep them. It’s how we can share our pain and our fears, lessening our burden and finding comfort. It is how we move through our demons. It is how we can avoid that anger volcano at the next Christmas or the sad dissolution of a once vibrant relationship. 

So no matter how exhausting it can be, how many times we encode it wrong, or they decode it inaccurately, if we get hurt or rejected a few times, we have to keep communicating, with ourselves, with strangers, and with our loved ones. 

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On Fear

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There was a marathon here in Agadir this week. I went back and forth on registering for it, looking for reasons to skip and looking for reasons to join, overthinking and overanalyzing it all. I ended up signing up the night prior. I ate a good meal and got to bed at a reasonable hour in a comfortable hotel close to the start line. I was excited to get back to my great love affair. I slept well, woke up with plenty of time, and bailed. 

Frustration doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of watching the runners in their post-race endorphin-soaked glory. I was jealous of their almost imperceptible limps and sun blush spreading across their shoulders. I was even jealous watching the slower runners slogging through those god-awful middle miles. I was more than frustrated that this was the third marathon since my transcon that I had entered and did not start. 

I tried arguing that the extra rest and time to get work done was more important – I did have homework. I tried to console myself with the reminders that my body is still in recovery and I have nothing to prove – which is true. I even told myself I would come back, run a different marathon in Morocco – the Marathon de Sables on my bucket list. I tried to frame it as learning about patience, humility, and understanding that not everything happens on my preferred timeline. I even started writing this post about not rushing things.  

But at the core of it, that’s all bullshit – I did not run because I was scared. 

I was scared of not making the cutoff time, I was scared it would hurt too bad, scared I’d have to drop out midway. I cannot remember being scared of running, ever. Not my first marathon, not my first ultra, not even really at the start of last year’s run. I was too naïve and too arrogant to be scared.

Not now. Now I’m fully, acutely and permanently, aware of the pain that can come with running – not just the physical pain, I knew that was part of it with my first mile. I even knew about those dark hours when the frustration takes over and the demons join for a few miles. Up until last year, however, I had not experienced, at least not to any great magnitude the deep soulful hurt, the paralyzing self-doubt and self-criticism that seemingly stayed with me from that first climb out of San Diego to the final stretch along the boardwalk in Virginia Beach. 

That run humbled me in a way I was not expecting. Sure, it inspired confidence in so many ways, but the paradox of running means it also made me scared as shit of running. Sometimes I feel like I conquered the miles, crushed them, that I own every inch of that route. Sometimes I feel like each inch of road took just a little bit of me as penance. 

Maybe I need a healthy dose of fear. I’ve always said that ultra-running requires a balance between humility and ignorant arrogance. You have to respect the distance, terrain, and weather. But it is also helpful to not be intimidated by them – to be ignorant of what it actually means to accomplish that many miles, the elevation profile, or the notoriously low finisher rate. I think that run took away some of that ignorance, and thus some of my arrogance. 

And you can’t get ignorance back. 

Maybe there’s something that takes the place of the ignorant arrogance, maybe a wizen confidence. Don’t worry, I’m not saying I have that. But I’ve seen it – the 60, 70, 80 year-olds out there churning out their miles, at their pace, in their comfortable well-worn grooves of pain, joy, and ectascy. Maybe that place is out there and that’s what I have to look forward to. 

I just have to learn to run with the fear first.

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On Missing California

Let's talk about California. When I was a kid I wanted to move to California, specifically Southern California - hereby referenced to as SoCal or SC. I wanted to live amongst the palm trees and sunshine and hollywood.

In high school I wanted to go to UCLA, to this day I can't remember why, but it's where I thought I belonged. When my sister got pregnant I decided to stay in the midwest, for family. And well I fell in love with Chicago. Still I watched The O.C. every Wednesday and wondered what life on the left coast would be like.

Then my love was the East Coast (aside from Eastern North Carolina). And DC. That was my jam. Maybe still is. Then the Marine Corps sent me to the West Coast, against my best wishes. And I went.

I went broken. I went with, what felt like, all the bad decisions of my life hanging over me. I went, leaving my best friends, my people. The people that made me feel like "home" wasn't confined to a  geographical space. I went.

And I hated it. I hated California. I hated how people thought I should thank the airlines that brought me here. I hated the people that thought SD was the only city with food and beer. I hated the blondes and the sunshine and the surfer dudes without direction. But mostly I hated who I was here. I had become the most unproductive version of myself. I drank too much. And when I drank I became loud, obnoxious, self-centered, and childish. I was dramatic and insecure. I was fucking annoying. And I blamed SoCal. I blamed SoCal for the self-loathing, over-emotional, bad decision-making person I was.

But it wasn't SoCal. It was me. It was the culmination of poor choices and selfish behavior. It was me running away from my problems. It was be thinking I was better than everyone else, everyone here. It was also me thinking that if I loved the people here, it would mean loving the ones I left behind less - something I've struggled with since I was 18.

But I can't be miserable for the sake of being loyal. I can't think life is just about sacrifice. Or work. Or others. Sometimes life is about a moment of reflection, self-preservation, and absolute pure beauty.

But there's a starkness to this place, a wild untamable west feel to it all. 20 minutes east and I swear I'm running trails untouched by man since the gold rush. There are mountains, there are trails, brush, deserts.

But's it's the sunshine and the fresh air, the salt sea and the endless summer. It's the tanned skin and countless surfers, changing from their wetsuits to their every day clothes. It's something that can't be put into words, only explored, experienced and then solidified in the soul. It's the unromaticized version of glamour, peace, and love. It's SoCal. And it's been calling me home for years....At least until I run back east.

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On Listening

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I’ve thought a lot about listening this week. I’ll admit I’m not a very good listener. I’m a talker. I get anxious when I can’t finish a story, and the story that goes along with it, and goes along with that one too. More than once I’ve woken up with a sore throat because I talked too much the day before.

But this week I’ve been in a foreign country where I speak just enough of the language to really have to listen to understand anything. On top of that, the English-speaking folks I’m with are consistently chattering. To be clear, this isn’t a critique – it’s naturally to talk a lot when forming a new group, and like I said, I do the exact same thing, but man do they/we talk.

So, I’ve been trying to listen more this week, and honestly I’m struggling. With the French speakers it’s hard to understand the words, despite how intently I listen. With the English speakers it’s hard to intently listen. Perhaps because understanding the words takes so little effort, my mind races to the next thing I can say, what I can contribute, or how I can relate. But if I’m not really listening, how can I hope to truly relate? And isn’t that what communication is about? Connecting?

Runners are typically divided into two camps – the talkers and non-talkers. I can be both – unless of course the pace is demanding, then I’m a strict non-talker.

I communicate more openly when I’m on a run. I’ve opened up quicker to strangers I’m sharing a few miles with than close friends and family members that I’ve shared years with. There’s some science to that. Jonah Berger, in his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, presents research suggesting that exercise promotes information sharing. It’s got something to do with the brain chemicals and increased blood flow. Further Berger research also argues that feelings of awe promote information sharing. I’ve been on some pretty awe-inspiring runs, and I’ve shared all sort of nonsense. So yeah, I’m a runner/talker.

Then again, running is a solitude endeavor. I have spent hours upon hours on the roads and trails in my own head, listening to nothing but the world around me and my own thoughts, often focusing on the former to avoid the latter. So, I’m ok silently trotting along with my running pals too.

What I rarely do, however, is simply listen. When I’m with a fellow runner/talker, I engage immediately and consistently – often focusing more about what I’m saying that vice versa, sometimes going as far as to completely dominate the conversation. Acknowledging that fact now makes me cringe – not just because it’s embarrassing that I’m such a mouthpiece, but because I’ve preached and preached that the best approach to training and running (or lack thereof) is to listen to your body. Why haven’t I applied that lesson to listening to others?  I shake my head when I think of all the stories I missed out on, all the people I could have learned about, and all the connections I could have made.

So that’s my running resolution this week. To listen more, in and out of my running shoes. To bite my tongue to better my brain and deepen my connections, and maybe even my French. 

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On Sadness

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The past two weeks have been peppered with sadness. It seems like each day I see another friend struggling with loss – of a parent, or a friend, or a mentor. I have even felt a sadness of my own.  Last week the academic world lost a phenomenal mind, and I lost my dissertation chair and academic advisor. This blog isn’t so much a tribute to him, his work and far-reaching influence do a much better job of honoring his life and work than anything I could write.  But his death did make me think about sadness, how it makes me feel, what I can do to respect it while not letting it take over, and of course its relationship to running.

Sadness is considered a “non-arousal” emotion. Sadness doesn’t prompt the human brain to action. On the contrary it prompts us to inaction. I get that. I went home the day I found about Dr. Yetiv and sat on the couch with take-out pizza and ice cream – the standard sadness diet. I, like so many, didn’t want to do anything in my sadness.

Except run. For me, the instinct to run after news of a tragedy is fierce and instant. At first, I’m sure it is my brain’s desire to run away from whatever email, text, or phone call that delivered the bad news – as if physical distance can make the source of the pain obsolete. Like a hot stove, the further I can get away, the less it will hurt.

But there’s something more there. After the initial wave of restlessness passes, I still want to run (and not just because of the pizza and ice cream). Running gives me time and space to feel and process. It gives me the isolation I need to start working through the sadness, the loss, the grief. It also strips away all the walls I put up to protect myself from sadness. It MAKES me process, makes me feel the things that are uncomfortable and undesirable, those things that demand to be felt, if not now then soon. If not soon than down the proverbial road. Running gives me just the right balance of mindless wandering and mindful pondering. It is not so complicated as to keep the brain actively engaged – running has never worked as a distraction. In fact, the further and faster I’ve tried to run away from something, the faster and harder it hits me.

But running requires just enough. Seemingly it requires the exact energy I’d normally use telling myself I’m fine. I can’t run and run away. It is too hard to ignore my heart during a run, too hard to keep pretenses and pace.

Running allows me to be overcome by the grief, it lets it swell up in my chest and head, lets it pulse through my legs and my lungs. It makes me run faster, trying to leave it behind but never succeeding. My legs can pump the rhythm of sobs, substituting strides for tears, but I can never outrun my sadness. Eventually I can let it consume me, in my safety of isolation. I can feel the weight and helplessness of sadness. Then I look up, wherever I am, and acknowledge the never-ending road ahead of me. I see the spider web of side trails and passes sprawling from my route. Depending on the time of day I can see blue skies forever or my persistent partner the moon. I can glimpse just one angle of an infinite and beautiful universe and my sadness is put in proper perspective.

And in a beautiful melody, the symbiosis of mind, body, and spirit, running gives me a shot of happiness. As my mind braves into the sadness – often not knowing its depth or breadth – my brain sends endorphins and dopamine to help ease the pain. It rewards me for the courage of vulnerability.

And as I’ve said before, it may take miles upon miles, the sadness may never completely recede, but at the end of each run comes just a little bit more peace. 

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On Failure

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My friends and I have been talking a lot about failure this week, which is appropriate since I’ve recently had a string of failures. I’ll admit these failures are minor, mostly being denied a few fellowships, but for someone who isn’t used to failing, I took them personally. I know I know failure is a part of life, it makes us stronger, Abe Lincoln failed a whole bunch before he was president. I KNOW all that, but when I fail I don’t feel it. I feel it for a long time. In fact, I distinctly remember my first big failure – Jr High cheerleading tryouts. My mom reminded me of that weekend just yesterday, like I needed reminding. I’m not sure I’ve cried that hard since then. When I say I cried, I wailed. Like a 12-yr-old version of Day 26 Maggie. My mom tried to bribe me by taking me to Maurices, offered to buy me anything I wanted. I couldn’t stop crying long enough to pick out anything. I cried myself to sleep that night and woke up the next morning with red and puffy eyes.

I was too young for makeup so I rocked those pitiful swollen eyes to the Governor’s Mansion. I had won an essay contest earlier in the year, writing about the Chisolm Trail. It didn’t matter. I barely remember the tea with the DAR or reading my essay or compliments on how smart I was. But I remember that failure, and its feeling, as if it happened yesterday.

It was the same feeling I had when I failed officer candidate’s school the first time around. A failure I’m pretty sure I’ve been trying to make up for over the last ten years.* I feel not only when I get a rejection email, but when I fail to win first prize or score anything less than 98% on an assignment (I’m not a perfectionist after all).

This most recently failure was not getting selected for an editorial intern position – a volunteer position that included duties I performed as a college student. It didn’t matter that it was probably best, I have enough on my plate. It didn’t matter that I was probably overqualified. It only matter that I wasn’t selected for something. That rejection, however slight or unintentional, burned.

Which led me to wonder. Do other people feel as bad about failure as I do? As serendipity would have it, this week’s TED radio hour talked about failure – specifically how girls and boys look at failure. Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls who Code, talks about her experience with girls trying to write code. In one example a girl, after hours, tells her mentor that she couldn’t come up with anything as she sat in front of a blank screen. When the mentor hit the “undo” button, however, she found the girl had written quite a bit of code but deleted it all. She had chosen not to participate because she wasn’t perfect. Reshma goes on to argue that we raise our boys to be brave, make mistakes, and just try hard. While we raise our girls to be perfect.

I know the feeling. I laughed when my nephew told me years ago about how, despite having a pretty impressive football game and being awarded the game ball, my dad only mentioned how he missed “that one tackle in the second quarter.” I laughed because I knew that feeling all too well. My parents had pretty high standards and were always careful not to inflate our egos too much. They didn’t praise us too much.

But despite those high standards, or maybe because of them, they didn’t inoculate us against failure either. They let us fail – my brothers, my sisters, and me. They let us risk getting hurt – physically or emotionally. I’m sure it hurt my mom to see me cry that night – as it’s hurt her when I failed in much bigger ways later on. But that didn’t stop her from letting me try again the next year.

I was never taught that failure was permanent. I was taught that failure wasn’t reflective of identity, but rather skill set, and skill sets can be improved. Researcher Carol Dweck (yes in another TedTalk) explains this difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. A person with a fixed mindset thinks failure is permanent. Failure means a person is a failure – now and forever. A person with a growth mindset thinks failure is indicative of where they’re at – at that moment. They think “I’ve failed, for now.”

Here’s the really bright lining with failure – it breeds resilience if we do it right. Failure can break a kid, crush her self-esteem. Or it can teach them how to sit with failure, learn from it, and beat it the next time around. That’s where my parents really made a difference. They let us fail with love. I may not of liked failing, but I knew – know – when and if I do my parents will be there to love, support, and comfort me. They won’t coddle me. They won’t tell me the referee was bogus. They won’t call and yell at the teacher who gave me a bad grade. They won’t talk trash on the guy or girl who beat me out for the position. They, along with so many of my loved ones, will provide an emotional safety net for me to rebuild my self-esteem, to bounce back, to move through whatever failure bruises my ego next.

I wish I had a magic trick for failure – to avoid it, to lessen its sting, or even to alchemize it into life’s greatest teacher. I don’t. I do know that I was lucky growing up learning to fail with love, to be taught that failure isn’t great, but it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not permanent. Still failure hurts. Luckily running, especially running across the country, has taught me to try and learn from pain. If I can’t learn from it, I can at least sit with it, walk with it, or even run with it.

*I failed because I was a poor runner, like I said failure sticks with me.

 

 

 

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Things I Learned...Death Race 2015

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In honor of rumors of a Death Race revival....the things I learned the last go around. 

So many lessons from this weekend. First and foremost the guys at Peak Races are truly twisted when it comes to developing pain-inducing tasks. Time after time I'd hear what was coming up and just not believe it. Just laugh at how ridiculous it was. A buffet of misery. Hats off to you fine arbiters of agony. 

When faced with such impossible tasks, the most you can do is start going. It's even better if you can do it with a little humor. You can do so much more than what you think is possible. I hiked that first lap thinking that was it. 5 laps later I remember the famous mantra "no limits." Well there are limits, we all have limits, we just often shortchange them. 

Barefoot hiking is no joke. Appreciate your shoes folks. When we got our packs back from the leech swamp, putting my shoes on was a better reunion than Zeppelin or NKOTB (even with Marky Mark). 

A good team will get you through a lot. A half naked team tied together in the woods will get you through just about everything. You can't do the death race alone. Nor should you. And I couldn't have asked for a better group. Thanks for the miles Kevin Brodsky, Diana Weishar and Luke A Weishar.

First impressions aren't everything. 

Picking a 53# rock is much harder than you think. Rucking 75# of rock (estimated since they didn't let me weigh it) plus a wet pack is much harder. 250 burpees also suck. 

I can compete, not just participate. And I sorta like that. 

My strengths lie in "school." Memorizing stuff and doing somersaults. Go figure. #nerd

I can lose it. I've always considered myself to be (maybe arrogantly) extremely mentally strong. I used to tell my students that you should only cry in the privacy of your own home under the influence of wild turkey like a self-respecting Midwestern woman. I still believe that. But I couldn't uphold that principle through this. I cried. I broke. The frustrations and fear overcame me and I lost it. I had that moment that death racers and ultra endurance athletes talk about. I've had it before, but never quite pushed through it. This time I did. Through tough love and practical encouragement, I got through it. And I can't thank Norm and David enough for not only putting up with my hissy fit but helping me overcome it, laughing at me, and documenting the whole thing.

Fury, rage, and hatred, they push you through for a while. But peace, acceptance, and love carry you the distance. 

My mother and father taught me the things that enabled me to finish this thing. Not just the ability to stack wood (flush to the front, no extra spaces), but the mental perseverance to know when to attack, know when to defend or just simply push through. To endure. 

Bonds form quickly during times of struggle. Sure death race is a competition, but only in a nominal sense. Joe put it nicely on Saturday when he encouraged all of us to help one another. Another racer put it nicely when she says it doesn't matter who finishes or wins the death race, what people remember is who you were and how you acted. I have to admit I got to the point of Maggie the bitch. I wanted no encouragement or positive thoughts (enter rage), I was vocal about that, and I apologize for that. Especially since I had fellow competitors offer me assistance even though they knew it hurt their chances of winning. People like Chiemi Heil taught me that I still have things to work on. 

David Magida is an athlete, a leader, and an incredible friend. I could extrapolate on how he fed and nurtured us, kept my mind right, or laughed at my (our) misery, but I'll just say that I'm happy to know him. 

Silkies pass for underwear. 

Silkies and gortex (as amazing as they are) are not appropriate attire for burpees, sit-ups, push-ups, squats, and running in a cold and hateful rain storm, nor the sand, nor crawling. Wear some freaking pants Maggie. 

I know I said the desert is the geological Chris Brown, but the VT forest might be a strong competitor. Beautiful and abusive all at once. 

When you need some perspective or mustache advice, ask Patrick Mies II

San Diego and Samantha Wilson have made me a much better hiker. 

When things get really crazy, when you can't remember who you are or what you're doing, look for a familiar face, listen for a familiar voice, and let it ground you. 

Get an education. The job you get with only an 6th grade education sucks. It's really hard. 

I absolutely adore these events. The fill my heart and energize my soul. They make me feel like me. I don't know why, still searching for that answer, but I'm officially an addict. Can't wait to see what's next. 

Life throws you a lot of shit, good, bad, ugly. The best you can do is take it all with a strong mind, a loving heart, and a sense of humor. Doing all of this with a couple good people - that's what the death race, and life is really all about. 

And seriously, appreciate your shoes.

#peakdr

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