Last Friday I ran the Zion 100k, a race I signed up for some time last year as a sort of reunion race for the Valor Run 161 crew. per usual, I went into this race with very little preparation - I simply hadn’t made it a priority. I still thought I might finish in 15-16 hours. I finished in over 19. It was humbling to say the least. On the other hand, it was a confidence boost to know I can still cover 63 miles on foot (notice how I didn’t say run - “run” might be overzealous, let’s say bounce walk). And like all the other long bounce walks in my life, I learned a few things:

Running is the teacher you need for the lesson you’re ready to learn. I registered for this race with Michelle, the ever badass surgeon turned Navy LT ultra marathoner. Talking with her afterwards she emphasize how humble this race had made her. I was thinking about how it boosted my confidence. She had run it 5 hours faster than I. It made no sense. But those were the lessons we each needed.

I learned about balance. Just like this race inspired both humility and confidence, the mountains can both destroy and restore a soul. Running causes so much pain but then releases the dopamine you need to suffer through it. The terrain and views are all at once amazing and treacherous. You fall in love with the mountains and then you want to level the whole thing and build a parking lot. You run 100k then drink 12 coca cola classics. Balance.

There are two points of every long run. The first, the miles you feel light as air. You bound down the mountain or beast up it. Every step seems to energize you, you can’t wipe the smile off your face, you could go on forever. The runner’s high. The second, are the miles you can barely slog through. Every step seems to be the last, you can’t muster the energy to listen let alone chat, and you can’t seem to cover one more foot. The runner’s low. Two points, every ultra. I can’t figure out what brings each on. I can’t figure out how to extend one or shorten the other. And for the life of me I can’t figure out which one I’m chasing.

Running makes me better, if not physically (ultras probably do more physical damage than good) but mentally and emotionally. If I missed a couple days of running my old chief used to send me out for an hour, cover my classes. He said it was more for him than for me. I think it was his way of politely telling me I was cranky without running. Running de-stresses me. There’s a science there, that whole dopamine/endorphins thing. But it’s not just that. As evidence from the last lesson, I’m not always happy when running. In fact I’m often cranky, tired, rude, self-involved, etc etc. Running makes me better because it makes me learn how to deal with that. In Go Ruck challenges they tell you, “no one cares who you are when you’re fresh”. What they mean there is that it’s easy to be kind and caring and compassionate when you’re well-rested and happy. But true character comes out when shit hits the fan. Running reminds me that these situations are permanent, but act like an asshole and that’s on your character forever.

It’s possible for your eyelashes to hurt.

Some people are motivated by haters or competition. The few times I wanted to quit I remember what my Mom tells me before every race, “Do your best.” Now that sounds like the “Everyone gets a trophy” or “It’s not winning that counts” sort of mentality that I assure you I did not grow up with. Sure it’s a pass for the weak, but it’s a directive for the honest. Around mile 27 I wanted to quit, for any of the various reasons why someone wants to quit these things. I hadn’t really told anyone about it so I wouldn’t lose face, I’d run 100k before so it wasn’t a distance PR or anything, I could sleep and enjoy the scenery, I shouldn’t risk an injury, all the typical things people tell themselves to convince themselves that they don’t need to spend the next 8-10 dark hours wandering the mountains for a mug, a coke, and some lukewarm cheese quesadilla. Then I thought “is this your best?” Believe it or not, I think this was the first time I’ve really asked myself this. This was the first time that the advice my mother has been giving me for 30 years - before every race, every test, every application, every challenge, finally sunk in. It took 3 decades but I finally truly learned how poetic it was. Do your best. Simple enough right? It’s all yours. No one can tell you failed. Only you really know if you did your best. And only if you’re truly honest with yourself.

Take your sunglasses off at night…makes it easier not to crush your face on the 2000ft descent.

You meet the most random wonderful people, people find one another. This weekend was a collection of random, in the sense of I could have met each one of these people once and never spoken to them again. Michelle was the girl who won her first 100 miler as I cried into my blisters. Becca could have been another Marine Corps officer met on TAD. Noah – some guy silly enough to run 5 marathons in 5 days. But instead of those stories being singular eventually forgotten memories, they became origin stories. As I gear up for this run across the country I’m beginning to more and more look forward to meeting the people along the route. Sure I’m going to have lots of personal reflection time, understand myself more and make myself a better person. But I’m also going to get to connect with my fellow citizens, runners, veterans, middle-Americans. Hopefully share miles and stories, meals and beers.

Sometimes there’s only one man that can get me through a race….and that man is Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton.