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Things I Learned....30 miles for 30 years

I  spent my 30th birthday doing almost all the things I love, starting with a nice long run. Here’s what I learned over those 30 miles in the wee early hours in Kuwait. Plus what I want my next 30 years to look like!

“It’s not what you do. It’s who you are”

Talking with Marines earlier in the week, I started thinking about the standard “what I have accomplished in my 20s” list. I felt annoyed with myself after listing the first two accomplishments. One of the Marines chimed in that I was only listing the things I had accomplished for myself, but not the contributions I had made for others. Regardless, counting the things you’ve done for others is equally annoying. I won’t do that. Besides my Mom always said she wasn’t so proud of (or worried about) the things I did as she was about the person I was.

This is especially true in running. I, like so many others, like to collect fitness achievements. Longest run, heaviest lift, handstands, muscle-ups, fastest marathon. I post pictures of my medals and log my run times. I started a blog for heaven's sake. Sometimes it’s for posterity. Sometime, let’s be honest, it’s for a little outside validation and support. But that’s not really why we run. We run because it makes us better people. I will always love racing. I will always prefer it to the lonely miles on a treadmill or track. I love my medals and race tee shirts and sharing beers afterwards with friends. But the run is always there, even if the race is not. It’s there without the finish line, the bling, the tee shirt, the post-run Instagram photo. It’s good to set goals, to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, and even to enjoy the congratulations and support of your loved ones, but the miles make you better even without that stuff. The goal tells others what you did, but it’s the miles that make you who you are.

“Lose the rules”

I turned 20 at Officer Candidate School (OCS), or officer boot camp as some call it. I remember distinctly thinking that all I wanted for my birthday was to be a Marine. I was dropped from OCS a month later. I spent my teens mostly succeeding at the things I tried. I started my 20s failing at the one thing I wanted the most. So I started making rules, rules I thought would help me succeed. Rules I constantly failed to uphold. I eventually became a Marine, because or despite those rules and was rewarded with a whole new set of rules. Some were forced on me, some I came up with on my own. No pajamas in public. No bikinis past like 35 or something. No flip flops. No jewelry. No nail polish. No binge drinking. No cigarettes. No Calibri. The problem with rules is that if I broke them, I felt guilty. And if I kept them, I felt righteous. I don’t want to be either of those.

I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence, probably not, that the more I run, the more rules I throw out the window. If anyone ever gives you a list of “rules” for running, ignore that person. When it comes to running, especially ultra-distances, there are no absolute rules. Even silkies chafe. For every person that tells you to drink lots of water, someone else will caution you against flushing out all your electrolytes. Every guy who says don’t ever sit down will have a girl behind him saying to take a nap if you can. Even the ones that seem self-evident – like don’t quit – should be ignored sometimes. If quitting means avoiding serious injury, quit. Sure there are general guidelines or lessons you can learn from experiences, but there are no rules. Even looking back over the “Things I’ve learned” posts, you’ll find some contradictions. Some emphasize the importance of team work, others of rugged individualism. Some will make you think that the desert is the best running for the soul, others speak of the sea. None of them are meant to be rules.

 “The Importance of Education”

The more I learn, the more I realize that there are so very few absolutes in the world. Thus, more education, as a guideline, is better. The more you learn = the more you understand = the more you can do. I’m not just talking about formal education or even the things you learn from books – although these are important. I’m talking about learning about people, cultures, nature, subjects, the world around you, yourself. In preparation for a race you study a course map, read race reports, and try out new gear. You educate yourself on the weather and terrain for a specific event. When you pick up a new fitness program you consult the experts, you learn the basics and then build. It’s the same for life. You learn because it makes you better, faster, stronger, smarter, happier. But here’s the real reason to learn, the more you learn the more you can connect with others. The more people you can have a conversation with over a beer or a 50k. The more people you have something, anything, in common with.

“The Importance of Empathy”

Of course if all you have is education, those connections can only go so deep. True connection requires empathy. I’m not saying sympathy, blanket agreement, or even the approval of every person’s views and/or actions. Empathy only requires that you seek to stand, or run, beside another person and try and see things as she or he sees them. That’s it. You don’t have to give up your beliefs (although you might), you don’t have to minimize your own truth, you just have to honestly try and understand the experiences, feelings, and ideas of another human being. Empathy is what you do when you’re humble enough to understand that your experiences and feelings are yours alone.

Empathy in running is what allows the first place runner to admire the guy or gal finishing just under the time cutoff. Empathy in running is easier than empathy in life. Empathy in running comes from common ground. Despite whether we are 5kers or ultra-marathon women, we are bonded through our shared experience of running. Empathy in life is more difficult. We all have vastly different experiences, different backgrounds, and different visions of the world. It’s more difficult to empathize in life when those connections aren’t immediately apparent. Difficult, but not impossible. Empathy is possible because we’re already bonded together. We’re all connected by virtue of being on this planet. We just have to find those connections and use them to build empathy.

“Ease suffering”

This is the big one, and perhaps the most appropriate to both life and running. During any long run there comes a point where I want nothing more than to stop suffering. Usually this means I want to quit. I’m willing to do anything to stop feeling pain. Because pain hurts. Suffering is miserable. I wrote about pain and its utility a couple months ago, but that’s not the point of this post (See, more contradictions). This 30 miles, and the week of pain and suffering back home that preceded it, solidified my vision for my future, to ease suffering – my own and others. That’s what I want to do when I grow up. (Only took me 30 years). This vision is going to take committed and persistent action, both small and large. Easing suffering isn’t just about the big things – ending human trafficking, equal rights, fighting discrimination and hate, protecting human security, or healthcare – it’s about the little things too. Ending suffering means, for me, putting in the hours with the non-profits as well as treating strangers with kindness. It’s the slow, laborious, frustrating legislative action and fundraising efforts required for substantial and enduring change. It’s the conversations we have every day. It’s asking a little girl about school instead of commenting on how pretty she is. It’s buying a homeless man a sandwich and doing the research on comprehensive VA housing reform. It’s minimizing how much crap I buy and helping fight the slavery that makes our goods so cheap. It’s voting in December. It’s hugging a Gold Star family.  It’s taking the time to have a beer with a friend, ask them about the day, ordering another round and laughing. It’s sharing your Vaseline and massaging the sweaty, dirty, cramping calf muscle of a stranger. Ease suffering, in all its forms, as often as possible.

I may not know what the end looks like, or what exactly I’ll need to do along the way, but I have a purpose and generally know where to begin, and that’s really all I ever have at the beginning of a run.

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The Utility of Pain

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The first time someone called me a masochist I thought they were crazy. Of course I didn’t like pain. Who likes pain? Hell forget pain, I didn’t even like discomfort. I was a hedonist by most accounts. I was certainly NOT a masochist. Still it’s hard to claim this when I continually signed up for increasingly painful endurance events. So I began to argue that I didn’t do these events for the pain, I did them for the lessons and the absolute joy I got from them. I said all of these while pretending that the pain was perhaps corollary to joy and learning, but not casual. Somewhere in the last week, maybe during a midday run in 100+ Middle Eastern heat, I realized that the lessons and the joy are not parallel to pain, but rather the direct result. A sunrise is never more spiritual than after a long lonely night. Sleep has never been more exquisitely well earned than after 100 miles. Part of it is simply appreciating things, providing the contrast of pain to pleasure. I firmly believe that the greatest pains in life are equally matched, or even dwarfed by, their counterparts – the greatest joys.

Think of the greatest joys in your life? Did a single one of them come without pain? A marathon? Childbirth? A great love? A inspirational friendship? A reunion with loved ones? Yoga? Dance? Art? The only joys I can think of that don’t come with pain are books and drinks with friends on a beach. And that last one often comes with pain the next day. Pain is a part of life, every day. Every stubbed toe or stiff back. Every ignored text or goodbye. The memories of loved ones far away or even gone completely.

So why seek out pain? I remember hiking with a man a year or so ago. I’m not sure I even knew his name at the time but somewhere lost in the desert waiting for the sun to rise we ended up sharing some of our biggest scars – his life in particular had seemed full of pain. I remember thinking, why is this guy lost on a mountain with 100lbs in his pack? If he wants to suffer he should just go home and live his life. Why seek out pain when there’s seemingly an abundance of it in the world?

Because, just like anything, you need to practice pain. Willingly exposing yourself to pain allows you to practice it, allows you to control it, to cope with it. I’m not just talking physical pain. There’s some true emotional and spiritual pain associated with endurance events as well. This is the most important pain of all to practice. There’s no other way to practice but to just feel it. You can’t fight it or numb it, at least not permanently. You can only settle into the pain, understand that with every step it may get worse. It may then all of the sudden get better. The physical pain may cause the emotional pain, or vice versa. It may cause joy. It may be the first of many painful episodes, a fresh hurt destined to be by your side for years to come. It may be the final scarring of an old wound. The ways you cope with pain over the miles, the mountains, and the mud are the same ways you cope in everyday life. Settle in and start listening to what the pain is trying to teach you – about your body, your spirit, and the world you inhabit.

These lessons you learn through pain are often the ones that stick with you. A burnt hand is a visceral memory that teaches you to be cautious around fire. Serious chafing reminds you to stock up on body glide. The pain of rejection or a broken friendship reminds you to be kind with your words. The loss of a loved one makes you appreciate those you have. When someone hurts you, you learn your capacity for forgiveness and compassion – and the strength it takes to exhibit both. The lessons you learn through pain and suffering are some of the cornerstones of your character.

One of my favorite lessons is that when forced to suffer, its best tosuffer with and for others. The pain you are willing to withstand for and by yourself - for money, ego, achievement, vanity - is a fraction of the pain you are willing to suffer with and for others.  There is no nobler cause than the one you take up for others. This is the idea behind Hero WODS, this is why Hero WODs are so exquisitely excruciating and why they are so often done in groups. I'm in no way equating the pain of an hour (or more) workout to the pain of losing someone, but I'm saying it's a way to practice it. It's a way to suffer and bond with others but like the bond - unbroken by death - a hero feels with his or her unit, squad, or family. It's a way to honor the sacrifice of men and women by sacrificing our time, our bodies, and most of all our comfort. Willingly withstanding pain is our small way of showing commitment and respect to a higher cause. In this case the cause is honoring the service, sacrifice, and legacy of others. It's a way to focus on the joy of knowing someone like the namesakes of these workouts. It's a way for us all to reflect on the lessons we can learn from them, ourselves, and our collective pain."

So this memorial day, if you’re so inclined, I urge you to practice a little pain. Go for a little longer run, (safely) do an extra set or extra rep. Feel the pain associated with a visit to a cemetery or a call to a Gold star family. Learn a lesson from this pain. Then be joyful. Cherish your lesson, your pain, and your joy. Know that while the pain for so many never goes away, it can and will subside. And in its place is peace and joy. So for the moment, settle into the pain.

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