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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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Choice and Chance

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This week marked the 2nd anniversary of the Southern Caiifornia Valor Run 161 miler – in which I along with two amazing runners, a logistics/support driver, and a 198? RV, went from the VA hospital in Los Angeles to the top of Mt Soledad Veterans’ Memorial in San Diego, 161 miles for 161 women killed supporting combat operations since 9/11. Considering how impactful this event was in my life, it’s hard to believe that it sort of happened by chance.

I heard about Valor Run, and the amazing women who completed this memorial run before me, by random. I was heading up to the Pacific Northwest to run the Jack and Jill Downhill marathon. Something in Facebook’s algorithm must have picked up on that and showed me a post from Bridgett, a Marine who was completing the run. Chance had it that we were in town for the event and my friends and I got to share a few miles with her.

I was heading up to the PNW because the Pathman family told me about this sweet race. I had met Jim and Riley years before as they flew by me during the first 1.5 miles of the Marine Corps Marathon (another example of doing something on a whim). Jim actually picked me up from the airport when I first moved to San Diego. He lent me his car, which I dinged up, and then lent me his RV for this adventure, which I also dinged up, but so did Becca!

I met Becca a year or so prior to the Valor Run, in the Philippines. We were both assigned to an exercise that demanded very little of either of our talents. So we mostly passed the time eating Samosas and doing a wine mile in the sauna that is Manila in May. Becca got out of the Marine Corps shortly after that meeting (I swear she was leaving before she met me), but we stayed in touch and she graciously agreed to take a pause on her world-wide travelling to drive me and my two friends down the coast – as well as make our sandwiches, answer our phones, restock our groceries, take our pictures, map our course, refill our camelbacks, tell us jokes, and keep our spirits as high as possible. Becs shows her love through service, and man she must have really loved us.

She did have some help though. Sam’s wonderful family came out in spades to support. I had met Sam a year or so prior to Valor Run. I was heading out to AZ to help crew for a friend’s 100 miler and decided to look at the entry list to see if anyone was travelling from San Diego. I found Sam. I creepily looked her up on social media, decided she didn’t look like a total weirdo or dangerous criminal and we carpooled to the desert. Our friendship grew with every 4am hike and impassioned conversation about feminism or various other social injustices. Sam is one of the most impressive, badass ultra-athletes I know the fourth side to our little trapezoid – Michelle.

Of all the folks on the run, I knew Michelle the longest, so it’s no surprise that she was one of the first people to jump in, running shows first, for this adventure. Michelle is hands down the best ultra-runner I know. Not just because she crushes races – winning her first ever 100-miler (only a few minutes off the women’s record), and not just because she trains at 3am in order to her intense surgical residency program (I won’t even tell you where she went to school), but because after meeting her at a race (that she won while I dropped out at 50 miles), she got my number from a friend a few days later and reached out to check on me. She doesn’t have an athlete profile on Facebook, she doesn’t even have sponsors any more (although she could have both), she’s just not that kind of person. She’s the kind of person who calls a stranger after she fails to ask her how she’s feeling.

I could write a whole blog post about how awesome my friends are, but that’s not what this is about. This is about how lucky I am that I met all these folks – that the winds of chance brought them all into my life.

Looking back, it seems like it was pure luck, meeting these folks at those times, but then again, maybe not. Maybe it was choice over chance. I often say that I make all my major life decisions on a whim – but I still make the decisions. After all, I had chosen to be a runner so many years ago. I had chosen to go to San Diego (with some urging from the Marine Corps0. I had chosen to run that first Marine Corps Marathon when my friend dared me I couldn’t. I had chosen to try (and fail) at my first 100. I had chosen to risk being the weirdo on the internet and reach out to Sam before a race, and I had chosen to go to the Philippines for an exercise. Of all the bad choices I’ve made in my life, I’ve made some pretty amazing ones too.

And mostly I chose to try and befriend these folks, or maybe they chose me? I don’t really believe in a design maybe it is just chance….or maybe I have more control then I think. I know it’s a mix – of chance and choice, but I’m not sure the balance. I’m not so arrogant as to think that all of my good fortune is a direct and complete result of good choices. Nor am I so naïve or fatalist as to think that my choices don’t matter. Maybe I’ll never know the ratio. Maybe the best I can do is recognize the chance when it comes – for love, for growth, for friendship and, then choose it. And choose it hard.

 

 

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The Freedom of Insignificance

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I took a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles this week. While I’ve been travelling pretty consistently since completing my run, it’s been mostly by plane. This train ride was the first slow travel I’ve done since the slowest travel of running across the country. I spent a little over nine hours through the mountains and down the coastline of this beautiful nation. Once again, I was struck by just how massive it all is – the mountains, the ocean, the rows and rows of seemingly endless fields. Aside, or maybe because of, the massive beauty of it all, it made me feel powerful, free, and incredibly insignificant.

 

It’s how I feel in a giant library. I’m frantic to finish this book, or that book, to complete a reading challenge or clear my “to read” list. But there’s always another book, another 1,000 books. It’s how I feel on a ship surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean in any direction. It’s how I felt in the mountains, across the plains, and standing at the Atlantic shore. Contrary to what you might think, however, that insignificance doesn’t weigh me down. It doesn’t make me feel helpless or powerless. It makes me feel free. If that mountain doesn’t care if you climb it, the road doesn’t care if you conquer it with speed, you’re free to do it for yourself. No one is forcing you, and the only one really benefitting is you. You do it, because it’s what you want to do. Because you want to be better, because you want to learn, because you want to be the person on the other side of the adventure. What’s more powerful or freeing that that?

 

We freedom belongs to important people. Rich, powerful people have more freedom to travel, to do what they want, to get away with what they want. But there’s a power, and a freedom that comes with insignificance too. There’s a freedom to mess up, a freedom to be authentic, and freedom to disconnect, even only for a few days or a few minutes. There’s a freedom to step back and look at the biggest problem in your life as a fleeting blip. The problem is not so overwhelming, not so permanent then.

 

This isn’t to say we don’t all have a power and responsibility to make changes, progress when we can. We do. We owe that to each other. And as Margaret Mead is often quoted, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” and I agree wholeheartedly with that. But that vastness of our country, our planet, space, puts it in perspective. It provides balance to our striving, our need to achieve, and more importantly, it gives humility to our own self-importance. 

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Things I Learned...Endure the Bear 50K

 Photo Credit: Linda Eckert, on the day we met

Photo Credit: Linda Eckert, on the day we met

Originally written in September 2014, after my very first SoCal Ultra. A 50k where I came in first, then was quietly disqualified for reasons I'm still not convinced were legit....

It was a good day at church...things I learned:

It is possible to chafe in silkies....ever so slightly. 

If you do happen to start chafing, simply rolling said silkies under until they more resemble underwear than shorts is a efficient and appropriate solution. Skies out thighs out? How about skies out chi's out? Tips also helps with tan lines. Problem solved, problem staying solved.

While I normally have such good luck taking medical advice from strangers on a trail, when a man offers you baby oil based gel for chafing, DO NOT TAKE IT. Unless you like the burn of what is seemingly gasoline on chafed skin. 

My ankles roll 90 degrees. Like a full 90. 

For being a Midwest/East Coast transplant, I didn't do too bad in the mountains and altitude. 

The views here are, as one runner described, legit. 

I'm pretty bad on downhills...need some trekking poles. 

But with a little Meatloaf and Manfred Mann and a downhill at mile 26, it feels like flying. 

It's a amazing how little it takes to put on a great race. I don't care about sweet medals or tee shirts or fancy after parties. It takes a sweet location, a couple cases of fat tire, and some decent people handing out water.

It's also incredible how a mountain or a course can both crush and then restore your soul. 

Running, especially running distance is the best way I know how to be grateful. I'm eternally grateful for everything and everyone that/who has taught me about physical fitness, strength, personal goals, blah blah blah...

I run for a lot of reasons. But one of the biggest reasons is to find and deal with my demons. Everyone has them, some call them something else - failures, ghosts, flaws, faults, shortcomings, weaknesses. They vary in strength, depth, longevity, and darkness but they're there. I find them on a run because they are partially what brought me here in the first place. I find them on a solo run because I have no one to distract me. I spend miles thinking if all sorts of things, what to eat, funny stories, inspirational quotes, sentimental Facebook quotes. Then they're there. Some are vanquished in a mile or two, some take 100s, some have been with me for 1000s of miles along 100s of trails. And it always find mine but right between "I'm bored" and grabbing the iPod, that's were the demons are, at least that's where mine are. And you have to fight them, because right behind them is peace. Sometimes there's  happiness, or a solution to a problem or even acceptance, but there's always peace.  

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The Daily Playlist, Part 1

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A couple folks asked me if I listened to anything during my run, so I thought I’d share my approach and my playlist. The first third of each day I’d listen to an audiobook, the second I’d switch to podcasts (thank you 1000 times to NPR), and for the last third I’d turn to music, starting with my daily playlist. In no particular order…

1) “Praying” by Kesha, because wow. I’ve never been through something like this, but I think we can all relate to the feeling you get when you move through something painful and can truly leave a terrible person behind.

“I'm proud of who I am, No more monsters, I can breathe again”

2) “Dig Down” by Muse. A friend sent me this during the first week and I love both the instrumental and the message in the words.

“When they've left you for dead (dig down), And you can only see red (dig down), You must find a way”

3) “Rise Up” by Andra Day. Dig Down, Rise Up. I found this song the week before I started the run, then I watched the video which is absolutely incredible. It speaks to the power of love and the power of women. If I had to pick one song to listen to on repeat for the run, this probably would have been it.

 “I'll rise up, Rise like the day, I'll rise up, In spite of the ache, I will rise a thousand times again.”

4) “Car Radio” by twenty one pilots. I love just about anything by this duo, but this song in particular always made me feel the freedom and pure joy of running fast. It speeds up in the middle, slowly building until it explodes with emotion. Every line of this song is amazing, so I urge to you either read the lyrics or listen to the track if you haven’t.

“My lungs will fill and then deflate They fill with fire, exhale desire” and that’s just the chorus.

5) “My Shot,” “Satisfied,” “Wait for It,” “Yorktown,” and “Non-Stop,” by Cast of Hamilton. I listened to this soundtrack almost every day the year leading up to the race. It says everything about hard work and perseverance. Unfortunately, those things got Hamilton shot, but I think the lesson still stands.

“Ev’ry day you fight, Like you’re running out of time”

6) “Diamonds (Remix)” by Rihanna ft Kanye West. Say what you want about Mr. West, his music is genius. I’ve said that ultra-running requires a balance of humility and arrogance and Kanye’s lines are pure arrogance.

 “We in this party and nobody invited me”

7) “Roll Me Away” by Bob Segar.  I gotta have some Segar on the list. I love all his work, and know most of it, but Roll Me Away is everything I love about freedom. It’s the most appropriate Segar song for this adventure. I love the idea of choosing the next path, of looking for signs from the universe, and the idea that every day you get a chance to do it better.

“I spoke to the faintest first starlight. And I said next time. Next time. We'll get it right”

8) “The Only Way I Know” by Jason Aldean. Yes, I know this is such a cornball of a song, but whatever I love it. It obviously reminds me of home. It reminds me not just of the lessons of hard work and grit, but also of the stubbornness that there might be a better way, but I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. It reminds me of how narrow-minded, in a sense, I was. I learned hard work and physical labor was the only option for how to live, it’s just how it is. You can get tired, you can get pushed back, just get back up and keep going. It’s rugged individualism mixed with just the right ignorance, which is a great combo for trying to run across the country.

“Sun in our eyes backs to the fences. We didn’t know the odds were against us. Hit the wall smoking and spinning. Still wasn’t thinking ‘bout nothing but winning.”

9) “Freedom” by Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar. The chorus on this song is amazing, Kendrick’s verse is incredible, the whole song is perfect for running. It has a sort of military march beat to it. It literally says “I’m gonna keep running cause a winner don’t quit on themselves,” and has all the fierceness of Beyoncé. It’s also all about individualism and freedom and the power we all have inside ourselves.

“And when they carve my name inside the concrete I pray it forever reads freedom.”

10) “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten because honestly, duh. The title says it all, it’s about fighting. Fighting to make your voice heard. Fighting to break free of whatever bullshit tells you can’t (freedom was a theme here…) and about the sacrifices you make when you just have a passion that you can’t put out.

“And it's been two years I miss my home, But there's a fire burning in my bones”

So that’s the first ten of my “Daily” playlist. I know that smell is the sense most closely linked to memories, but hearing just one or two notes of any of these songs instantly takes me back to road, even makes me miss it a little…..

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The Moon and Me

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The Moon and Me

                                                                                          The Moon over Arizona:  maggiemae3486

                                                                                         The Moon over Arizona: maggiemae3486

Big week for the moon huh? I took a peek here on the East coast, so it was a little less impressive, but I still felt that kinship I feel with that flying ball of rock, a kinship I’ve felt since my run.

As most of you have heard me bitch and moan, the first two weeks of last year’s run were downright awful. So awful that I still haven’t had the emotional courage to mentally return to them. Over six months later, those memories are still too raw to touch, let alone begin to process. Except for my memories of the moon. I remember arriving in Texas on day 44 for a rest day. My driver and I were staying on a little ranch with two amazing people, a cranky cat, and a half pet/half wild rabbit. We took a sunset tour of the place and arrived back to the homestead as the moon was rising. This was my first moon sighting since my exodus out of the great southwestern desert, and I remember smiling. I may have even winked at the thing – go ahead and judge the corny cliché.

I know I know, everyone loves the moon. Hippies form drum circles and perform rituals to the moon. There are 1000s of poems, memes, and quotes about the moon – justifiably so. It’s the very thing that drives the tides. It moves entire oceans, it deserves a little attention. It’s romantic and powerful, and people love it.

But they didn’t have my relationship with the moon. They never begged it to stay, thinking it was the only thing to keep you sane and safe (literally, the desert is very dark and I always forgot fresh batteries). They never begged it to go away because they knew they could stop moving when brother sun appeared. The moon has never watched them cry loudly, then quietly, even silently. It never comforted them like it comforted me. The moon got me through that hell of a wasteland, a phrase that accurately describes both the desert and my mental state. The moon has never loved anyone else like that.

Except that’s nonsense. The moon isn’t a person. It’s not capable of love. Frankly it gives zero fucks about the pain and suffering of me or anyone else.

It is like the mountains in that regard. I remember trading the desert for mountains out of Phoenix, frustrated, cursing everything from the Louisiana purchase to gravity,[1] but mostly cursing the mountains. There’s a reason that mountains are used to describe struggle. I’d pretend they were great test sent by the universe. They just wanted to see if I could earn my place among the mountain people, the trail runners, the dirt bags. I convinced myself that this was an elaborate initiation rite, at the end of which I’d look back and the mountains would whisper “Welcome, we knew you could do it all along.” Like a granite sensei. Again, the mountains don’t care. They aren’t the keepers of the initiation rite. They could care less if you make it or not. They neither spur your success nor cause your failure. In fact they are scientifically incapable of caring.

Still I get comfort from the moon, and the mountains. Maybe because the moon is my link to that painful time, a time that I can yet return. Maybe because it was my greatest source of comfort and consistency during that time. Like the sun, the moon was the way to mark time but without the searing heat dehydration, and subsequent rash that looked suspiciously like greyscale. Maybe they aren’t the keepers of the elusive club of transcendental, mellowed out sages. Maybe the tests aren’t in the mountains rising from the ground or the magnetic power from the sky, maybe they’re in my head. The mountains and the moon, they’re there for whatever lesson I choose to learn. They’re not what’s testing me, they’re for whatever gets me through the night.

[1] The absence of either would have made a transcontinental run much easier. 

 "Blue Blood Moon":  @briescat

"Blue Blood Moon": @briescat

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We're on a Break

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Understandably, running and I have taken a little break. It’s not only necessary for my physical and mental recovery, it’s necessary for our long-term relationship. My love affair with running has been my most stable adult commitment and obviously last year we took it to an intense new level. Now, I’m backing off.

This isn’t without a struggle. I’m frustrated when I have to walk during a three-mile jog. I’m worried about how bad my feet hurt after walking – just walking – around DC for a week. Moreover, I’m concerned that races don’t interest me or that the idea of knocking out a long run on a Saturday morning is completely foreign. I sometimes joke that I may never run again, but we all know that’s not true. And I’m ok with that, because that’s what a committed relationship is.

I’m ok stepping back because I know it’s just a break, not a break-up. I’m ok watching that number on the scale creep back up and the once defined lines in my quads recede – because it is temporary. Because I know that forcing the miles will do more to hurt me, and my love of running, than giving us some space will. I also know that as much as I love running, as much as it has colored how I view the world and myself, it can’t have all of me. I have to have a life off the road. I refuse to be that girl who can only talk about one thing.

It’s time for some counter-balance.

It is time to concentrate on some other things – reflect and process the miles in a rational way (because nothing about me or that run was rational), write more, and finish that ultramarathon of a dissertation. It’s time to focus on the relationships that were strained on the trek and see how I can apply the lessons learned on that white line to making things better.

I know I’ll always love running, so I’m ok taking sometime for other things. I don’t know what our future relationship will be like, but I know it will be. 

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Where Did Your Money Go?

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I’ve said it before, but I’ll keep saying it, this run was overwhelming in a lot of ways – some good, some bad. One of the best ways was how much people from every corner of my life supported me – financially or otherwise. Crowdrise says we had 241 donations online alone! So, what did we do with all that money?

We started out the run by completing the fundraising for Team Liam’s specialized racing chair, custom made by Team Hoyt Racing Chairs with artwork by Liam’s IRun4 buddy Ty Godwin. As Ty says, this was a classic example of “give a dime, get a dollar.” Through your donations, we not only got to gift Liam a chair, but we got give Joan and Fabian (Liam’s parents) the opportunity to run with their child – and I got a couple new wonderful friends.

We also we able to complete fundraising for a chair for another San Diego teenager – Andy, the son of Robin and Heath. Another military family, Robin is the Ainsley’s Angels ambassador in Southern California and does amazing work for special needs athletes.

As we hit the halfway point in Oklahoma, your money went to fund a Freedom racing chair for the Meredith and Laura and their amazing family of Annie’s House. These ladies are truly remarkable. They have five special needs children and are truly a source of love and caring for everyone they meet.

As we crossed over into Arkansas your donations funded two freedom racing chairs for the new Ainsley’s Angels ambassadorship in Arkansas led by Jarrett Banks – another new friend. Jarrett is doing absolutely wonderful things in Ft Smith, both through Ainsley’s Angels and his church, where he’s a pastor.

Your donations also funded two freedom chairs for Ainsley’s Angels in Washington State, run by good friend and lovely human Sarah Poppe. Sarah, an Army spouse, nurse and all around badass of love, came out to support for a few days and is one of my most precious friends.

Your donations also sponsored a Team Hoyt racing chair for the San Diego chapter of Team Hoyt, triathlon equipment for Team Hoyt Virginia Beach, and racing equipment for the Illinois ambassadorship of Ainsley’s Angels – run by my sister Rachel! Your donations also supported Team Hoyt Arizona and the soon to be official Team Hoyt Ohio!!

For the veterans, we were able to invest in a veteran mead maker as she launches her mead business, Wit and Mettle Meads. As part of that investment, Marine veteran Casey Jackson granted Run Free naming rights to a line of mead brewing right now! The new line will be named “No Worries” and will be dedicated to CWO2 Miles P Henderson. Miles was killed in Iraq in 2006. His mother and father hosted me on their ranch in Canadian, TX and “No Worries” is a shortened version of one of Miles’ favorite bible verses – Philippians 4:6.

We were also able to donate $2500 to the Mission Continues, an organization that helps veterans transition to a life of service outside the military and $6000 to Warrior Expeditions. Warrior Expeditions, founded and run by Sean Gobin, sponsors veterans on outside expeditions as a way to transition from wartime experiences. Sean came out to the run to support through some of the hottest days and yet another remarkable human being.

We were also able to make a $500 donation to Jacksonville, Il AMVETs post, who graciously hosted a celebration party for me.

For the gold star family community, we were able to donate $3000 to wear blue: run to remember Gold Star race program. This program sponsors gold star families to run marathons as a way to honor and grieve their fallen family members.

Finally, with $5000 we were able to support next year’s Run for the Fallen a cross country tribute to fallen service members sponsored by Honor and Remember.

Altogether you all have contributed $46k to this adventure and the communities who have embraced me. I’ve had a few more requests for specialized equipment so I’m going to keep the fundraiser open indefinitely, or at least until I decide on the next adventure, so feel free to make your Christmas donations, Hanukkah gifts, or non-denominational tax contributions here.

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What's Next?

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Has it really be a month since I hit the Atlantic Ocean? Seems like just yesterday, and a lifetime ago. I’ve been asked a lot this month, “What’s Next?” both in life and running. And while I have about seven answers to the first part (seriously – journalist, advocate, mental health/running coach, non-profit leader, professional feminist, FSO, security wonk), I have one awesome answer to the second.

What’s next is a 6,000 mile, relay run across the country, from Ft Irwin, California to Arlington, VA. Wait, Maggie, didn’t you just do that? Yeah, but this is different, stick with me.

In April of next year, Honor and Remember will kick off the largest tribute to Gold Star families I’ve ever seen (possibly ever?). Runners will start in Ft Irwin, CA and run one mile for every service member killed since the USS Cole. Teams of four runners will carry flags honoring our country, our fallen service members, and their gold star families, stopping at each mile to read the name(s) of fallen servicemembers. I’ve had the honor of doing four smaller versions of this over the years and their impact on me has been permanent and profound. At the end of each day the runners and team will conduct a flag ceremony, presenting an Honor and Remember flag to a gold star family in honor of their sacrifice.

So that’s what’s next for me. I’ll help plan the California, Georgia, and South Carolina portions of the run, and try and get out for as many days as I can. But I need your help, again. Here’s how you can get involved.

 

Check out the website. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Sign up for our virtual race for a sweet medal and tee shirt!

Donate to the cause!!!

Sign up to be a runner (or volunteer)!!!

Find your fallen hero, or have their name added here

And as always….SPREAD THE WORD. No, not bird.

 

 

 

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The Importance of Education

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Running, like education, is life transforming – it takes you places you never would have imagined

I’ve always said that running was one of my favorite and most effective teachers. The things I’ve learned about myself and life on the trails, including during this cross-country journey, I could have learned in few other places. Experiences allow you to learn from the world and yourself, formal education allows you to learn from others, and that’s why I’ve always been a big advocate for both formal education and experiential knowledge. It’s why I went to college, then joined the Marine Corps. It’s why I also pursued graduate school, twice, while in the Marine Corps and am approaching the end of my doctorate program in international studies.  

I learned a great deal from my time in the Marine Corps. I grew up fast and learned how to lead in my own style. While there were tactical manuals, doctrine, and official publications to reference, the overwhelming majority of what I learned was through experience. During my first deployment, I learned about Afghanistan through reading first-hand reports and translated documents. I learned about the terrain by flying over it. I fancied myself a little bit of an expert on Afghanistan, until I started my master’s thesis on Afghanistan. I quickly realized that my experiences, and what I learned from them, were but a slice of the rich tapestry of knowledge out there.

This desire to gain a deeper understanding of the topics that interested me, inspired me to further my formal education. Just like in the Marine Corps, I would never be an expert in admin or logistics, nor did I have time to experience those lessons firsthand, but I knew there would be an expert somewhere to tell me. Running is the same. I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t through miles and error, but I’ve also picked up a book or two and listened to my fair share of podcasts. As I am now transitioning to civilian life, I have a better understanding of how education played a key role during my time in active duty, and am experiencing the amount of support it provides during my current transition.

I feel fortunate to have found a great partner during this transition, and cross-country journey, through the support of National University. Like National University, I believe in the power of education to inspire and strengthen communities and I am excited to share my experiential and formal knowledge with current and future National University students, many who like me are transitioning to civilian life. In fact, about 25 percent of National University’s student population are active duty, veterans or family members. The University’s founder, retired U.S. Navy lieutenant commander David Chigos, understood how deployments, relocations, and work schedules posed a challenge for military students and the University created a format that adapts to our needs, offering a wide range of programs, including cybersecurity, business and criminal justice that are available online, on bases and on campuses.

As a Yellow Ribbon School, the University also accepts the post 9/11 GI Bill and strongly supports the Forever GI Bill. An estimated one million military personnel are expected to transition to civilian jobs over the next 3-5- years, which is why the GI Bill has been so beneficial, as is the newer Forever GI Bill, which expands education benefits and further reduces education costs to military-affiliated students. The nation understands that in order to properly support and serve our troops, we have to ensure that they have access to formal education.

I look forward to giving back to others when I return to teach at National University. I believe we all can learn from each other, and I’m certainly doing just that during this journey as I have the chance to connect with people from all walks of life. I am proud to be among those one million military personnel who are transitioning to civilian life, and glad to be channeling my passion for learning through life and education into a new role. Who knows where it will take me but as I strive toward achieving my goals, one step at a time, I hope to inspire others to be lifelong learners and achieve their education, career and life goals.

 

 

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Day 85: What the Hell am I doing? Again.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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What the hell am I doing?
I asked that question about 74 days ago, and answered: “running across the country.” I thought that might suffice, that answer might quiet my brain and my heart, but like a persistent toddler eventually the answer led to more, deeper questions, and the “what the hell am I doing” turned into “why the hell am I doing it?” At this point I ask myself that pretty regularly, and every time I go through the same answers and counters. It goes roughly like this:

Why the hell am I doing this?
To raise money and awareness! I tell myself that I’m doing this for the communities that have given so much to me. Then I counter with about 15 ways I could raise money and awareness without the pain of running (or walking) 2800 miles. I could be spending my waking hours organizing fundraisers, cocktail parties. I could be writing five OpEds a day to raise awareness of these great organizations. Try again Mags, why this?

To build communities! To inspire others to get involved! Yeah! I’m an inspiration! Again, I counter. There are thousands of people out there more inspirational than I. I could be working for them, mobilizing communities around their missions. Not buying it, why this?


For your own personal journey, because you love running and it makes you better, stronger, kinder.
The problem with that answer is that I’m not feeling more enlightened, better, or even stronger.

This journey doesn’t feel like progress; I see the icon moving, I know I’m moving forward in space and time, but I don’t feel like I get up every day to meet and vanquish a new obstacle, learn a lesson, and repeat. Physically and emotionally I feel like I get up every day and get pushed back down by the same big jerk, with a dull but painful thud. Sometimes for good fun the day (jerk) will punch me in the face, more of an acute pain to complement the persistent ache. I spent miles one day begging for the lesson through the tears. Frustrated and helpless against the pain, angry at my complete lack of ability to beat it back, to find peace, to find a lesson, searching for anything that made me feel like this was something more than a completely futile exercise in suffering and misery. But the only answer that’s made any sense comes from ultrarunner Scott Jurek.

Sometimes you just do things.

I hated this concept the first time I heard it. “You just do things?” What? That’s bull. You have to have purpose and intent. You don’t just go around “doing things.” Where’s the growth there? How are you bettering yourself or your community by just doing things, unexamined and directionless? How has that nonsense philosophy carried me through, the only thing that has worked, for the past month?

It works because it’s the perfect balance of humility and arrogance, humility that I don't understand the world, the effects of my deeds, that I can’t map it out, there are limits to logic (never thought I'd say that). It’s balanced by the arrogance of believing that I am doing something good, for myself and for others. I have to have the arrogant faith in 2016 Maggie and the October 29th Maggie. That pre-run Maggie knew what she was doing and that post-run Maggie will be a better person, that this pain will alchemize, that future Maggie will find the glory in the grind and make something out of it. She’ll be better, kinder, stronger.

So I'll keep going, not fully understanding why, but making the option of quitting as small as possible, as unattractive as possible. I’ll try and stick to my goals, keep my “why” in front of me for as long as possible and then keep faith that it’s there even as it recedes into pain and self-pity. I’ll go through the whole question and answer inner monologue as many times as I need to. I’ll just keep getting up. Sometimes quietly, clumsily, even angrily. Just keep getting up til I’m done. Because sometimes you just do things. 
 

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Day 66 or Putting the Social Back in Social Media

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Day 66! I’m officially 2/3 of the way through this adventure. I have to say, the past couple weeks have been pretty amazing, and have went by way faster than the first third. Maybe that’s because there have been real live humans! Running with me, eating with me, and chatting with me. Small towns across Middle America have welcomed me with open arms. Almost any runner will tell you that miles with someone are infinitely better than miles alone. So much better that I’m beginning to wonder how I did all those weeks (mostly) alone. Then I realized I didn’t. I’ve had more company than I can count for each of these 66 days, in both virtual and real life.

Social media sites have gotten a bad rep over the years. Studies show kids are less social with their peers, possess less social skills. Insta-celebs have pulled back the curtain on the perfect filtered posts. Internet trolls are hateful on threads. Fake news is rampant across the platforms. Weekly I hear of someone deleting their account or just taking a step back from social media, and I fully support that. Still it’s important to acknowledge how much social media has brought to this run.

I had a couple goals with this run. I wanted to spread awareness and raise money, but I also wanted to meet the folks of middle America – the people I grew up with but haven’t spent much time with since leaving for the Marine Corps. Social media helps with the first, there’s no way I could have been as successful in fundraising without social media. And it’s even with the second goal. Social media has enabled me to share my story and meet new people. It’s connected me to strangers turned running buddies. It’s been a fantastic complement to real life interactions.

Social media has also enabled me to feel the support and love of my communities and loved ones who can’t be here. I can’t count how many times a day I go to my phone for inspiration, a simple good luck or message or support. I have no shame in saying the comments or likes boost my spirit, keep me going. In fact someone asked me today how many times I thought about quitting, and honestly I haven’t, no once, yes because of personal determination and for the causes I care so much about, but also because I told everyone I was going to do it. The idea of making a facebook post saying “ok I’m tired, I’ll call it now,” is ridiculous. Shame has always been a pretty effective motivator, it’s the Midwest in me.

But wait Maggie, do you even know these people? Aren’t you just seeking external validation? Hmmm maybe. But I also don’t know the fans lining the streets of DC during the Marine Corps Marathon. I don’t know the aid workers urging me to get back on the trail, but their energy carries me, inspires me, reminds me of how much I’m loved and supported, how much this running thing can inspire people. I feel that same thing when the support is online. Just because it’s virtual, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

Growing up in a small town I went to kindergarten with the same people I graduated high school with. We (mostly) thought the same, dressed the same, looked the same. We had a tight community, one that will always feel like home to me. It taught me how to be a member of a community, how to rely on those in your group for support, how to give that support back. Still, I rarely met or spoke to people who were different from me. I was limited to be friends with whoever was within walking (my siblings), riding (four neighbors), or driving distance. Social media changed all that. Take this wonderful group, I Run 4, for example. It pairs abled bodied runners (or bikers, swimmers etc) with special needs individuals, virtually. I’ve been paired with my awesome little girl for over a year now and cherish that relationship. I’ve never met her, but feel connected to her through technology.

While social media has exposed me to those who are different from me. It also enables people to find people just like that. Again, take special needs families. While families, especially those dealing with rare genetic disorders, can feel isolated in the physical world, they can find solace and community in the virtual one.

Social media, technology in general, is amoral – it’s all about how we use it. Sure, I get exhausted from notifications, but I get exhausted from people too (yes it’s true). I see people being mean and hateful online, but I see that in person too. It can be used for nonsense, or it can be used to build vibrant, thriving communities. It can connect, or reconnect you, to people who love and support you. It can hold you accountable for your goals. It can open you to diversity, or let you find people just like you. It can help mobilize communities, raise funds, and awareness. It can facilitate all these things if people want it to. And It can give you a street lined with fans along the lonely road.

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Tragedy and Community

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With hurricanes, earthquakes, and a recent tragedy in my hometown, I’ve thought a lot about the links between tragedy and community lately, and never more so than today. I thought about it running through Oklahoma City on 9/11 seeing the mementos left at the city’s memorial, thinking of the attacks 16 years ago, and the response afterward. Political scientists call it “rally around the flag,” after a national tragedy, the phenomenon of increased patriotism and trust in government. Psychologists have studied how outside threats affect group cohesion, and have found that external threats (perceived or real) increase cohesion. Reagan even posited that an alien invasion might be what the world needed to achieve peace. Anyone who has suffered a natural disaster or great personal loss will tell you how a community comes together. The differences that seemed insurmountable prior to, become insignificant after a tragedy. In ultra running there exist an unofficial philosophy, if someone needs something, and you have it – you give it to them. You don’t hoard it in case you need it later. You don’t ask for something in return. You just give it. Later down the road, if you need something you don’t have, someone will give it to you. That’s clearly the philosophy of survivors as well. 

When there is an external threat, one that threatens to destroy us, we quickly discover that we’re all part of a community – whether that’s the local community, the national community, or even a global community of the human species – and we fight to save ourselves, it’s encoded in our DNA. We don’t fight to save our individual selves, we don’t become selfish, we become selfless. Something kicks in and makes us realize that it’s the community we need to save, sometimes at the expense of our own personal safety. I’ve thought about why this is for days, and I’ve come up with some interesting theories – some based on science and reasoning, some based on nothing but Maggie thoughts – like love is the most powerful thing, the universe protects us, etc etc. But honestly, I don’t know why it happens, but I’m sure glad it does.

It gives me a silver lining in tragedy. It provides hope in humanity during the worst possible desperation. It’s the knowledge that while we can’t escape pain, we can have someone by our side, or even a whole village of people. It gives me hope that one day we can tap into that sense of community not only during times of tragedy, but also in times of prosperity. That we can realize in times of peace that we are more alike than others might suggest. That we all have a vested interest in not simply self-preservation but the preservation and progress of the entire community. 

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