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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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Things I Learned...Valor Run 161

Originally written 1 March 2016 after a 4 day 161 run down the coast of Southern California in honor of fallen female servicemembers.

I knew 161 miles would teach me a few things, and as always the miles came through. Here’s what I learned this weekend trotting along the coast with the some of most incredible and badass people I know…

Becca is a much better logistician than I am. Probably also a better RV driver, but tell that to the tree.

Michelle continues to be a far superior athlete than I, but I’m ok with that. Or at least I should be after I repeated it in my head for 20 or so miles each day. I’m ok with that because she’s a genuine humble soul and deserves every bit of praise I can awkwardly heap on her. Girl crush for life.

Samantha is also a superior athlete to me, and I’m ok with that too, because she’s worked for every single success and accomplishment in her life.

When you request to do a run like this, it’s not about you. It’s easy to think it is when so many people come out to support – virtually or in person. It’s easy to think so when you’re suffering or hungry or exhausted, but it’s really not about you. It’s not about your pace or your pain, in fact you’re the least important person there. It’s about what you can do for others. Running is a very selfish endeavor in a lot of ways, maybe that’s why I like it. But something like this just can’t be about you, it’s about alot of things – honoring and remembering, cherishing our loved ones, our bodies, strength and grit, inspiring others, community, love, and support but it’s not about you. I’m grateful that everyone on the road this weekend had that exact outlook.

Young Marines like Assi and Lindsey re some of the toughest, grittiest, most determined people on the planet. They’re also incredibly humbling to serve with.

Silkies: I get bigger, they stay the same size.

I don’t have causes, I have communities. And this weekend was a beautiful merging of communities – the Ainsley’s Angels and Team Hoyt Families came out with some of my running/crossfit community to support along with Team RWB. Support came in through my #TruSD Truman community, my very first community back home, my family, my Va Beach crazies and my local peeps. I even borrowed the stroller warriors community. I’m grateful for my communities.

I’m am in love with the sea and everything about it. There really isn’t anything that can’t be cured by salt water.

Corey can rock a crop top better than anyone I’ve ever met – and I live in Southern California.

Running long distances with friends makes you very intimate very quickly. We share water bottles, passcodes, and even underwear. It’s weird and I love it.

Running long distances also regresses you to your childhood. Someone watches traffic for you, monitors your urine output and BMs, makes you sandwiches. You get potato chips and cola for breakfast. And you have lots of trouble with the stairs.

Sometimes you gotta let a stallion run.

The trick to covering lots of miles with few or no injuries is all about honesty -with yourself. Are you injured? Or are you in pain? Are you looking for a reason to quit? Or are you pushing past your limits out of pride or arrogance? Is this pain the normal pain? The SNIFLS (Situation Normal I Feel like S!@#) You can lie to everyone else and say you’re perfect (and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s helpful), but you can’t lie to yourself. The more times you force yourself to be honest, the better you are at it – both with running and in life.

No one cares what you’re like when you’re fresh. They say this at the Go Ruck events, and it’s so true. It’s important when you get to those dark places to be able to push through and get the job done, but more important is that you push through and be a good person. Rule #1 is not lifted just because it hurts. And Rule #1 is “Don’t be a D-Bag.”

Show up. Don’t quit. Be flexible. Ok I learned this from a friend’s recent article, but I learned firsthand how helpful this approach is to anything this weekend.

Mental toughness isn’t a thing you achieve. I learned about dams recently, specifically those built on water soluble gypsum. Those dams, while strong enough to hold back millions of gallons of water, generate electricity, and control majority water sources also require constant maintenance. And it’s the same with mental toughness. The human mind is a marvel. It can force the body to perform amazing feats and endure great pain. But the smallest thought can erode the foundation so much that it all breaks. It requires constant maintenance to identify and address those eroding thoughts, those small breaks. You don’t ever achieve mental toughness. You simply grout the voids and hope it doesn’t all break.

Thank you again. To everyone that supported whether financially, in person, virtually, or just sent good vibes. Thank you to those painfully clarifying miles. Thank you to those women and their families that paid the ultimate sacrifice.

#valorrun161

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Things I Learned...Mojave Death Race and Rock-n-Roll San Diego

Originally post Memorial Day Weekend 2015

The desert doesn't cleanse you. It burns you. Your hubris, arrogance, false exterior away. Much like running doesn't fix you. It simply strips away the external. It highlights your problems, your mistakes, your past. It tells you what you need to change, deal with. Keep coming back and it'll give you clues, but it's not the solution. I'm a Midwest girl at heart and always will be but the desert speaks to my soul.

When you're struggling or looking for something, spend some time with your friends. They know you. They'll make you laugh.

I miss running as a duo.

America's favorite marathoner has a hero. It's his Dad.

Things never go exactly as planned. Sometimes (more often than not for me) you overbook. Sometimes you need others to execute your precisely timed plans. Sometimes you don't communicate. When things don't go as you like, remember that you are not the center of the universe and anger and frustration should be fleeting emotions. Take what time you can get from the people and things you love the most. Take as much as you can from all of this.

Sometimes life is just fun. Go with it. Don't overthink it.

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Things I Learned...Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim

What I learned working off my seven Thanksgiving plates running/hiking 46-54 (depending on if you ask the Internet or my GPS) miles, and climbing ~10k ft through the Grand Canyon...

There was a sign on the first descent "Going down is optional, coming up is mandatory." I thought about this not so much as I trotting down the gentle slopes, but very much as I stumbled up the final 4.5 miles, heaving and trying to keep from crying and my heart to stop beating like a hyperactive college kid on adderall. I said no less than 5 times, "I can't do it, I'm just go to stop." Then I'd realize that wasn't a really an option. Well I could stop but that most likely meant I'd a) face hypothermia, b) a bobcat eating my face, c) or an embarrassing and expensive rescue from a park ranger only a few miles from the rim. Morale of the story is that it's easy to get into something - a bad relationship, addiction, unhealthy lifestyles, financial issues, legal problems, a canyon - but is a lot more work to get out of it. Still coming up is mandatory, one foot in front of the other and if telling yourself you CAN do it doesn't work, remind yourself that you HAVE to do it.

Microspikes are the s. h. i. t. Especially for clumsy, graceless folks.

I've never been worried about being alone in most areas of life....except these types of adventures. After the first seven miles or so with Linda, and a few miles with my old CG's niece (small world) I completed the majority of the distance alone. I knew this going into it and almost cancelled the whole trip, but I figured it was time to learn how to be alone - to learn how to pull myself out of dark places, to be the only one responsible for me. I wasn't entertained by anyone or (gasp) the center of anyone else's entertainment. I didn't like it. I would have given my next paycheck to have just one of my friends or family with me, to share my misery. But being alone has its utility - and I learned a lot about myself in the 15 hours I spent wandering through the wilderness. You cannot and should not go through life alone, but you absolutely need to know how to be wholly self-reliant and comfortable with just yourself.

Finally, probably my favorite realization, you can accomplish anything as long as you're willing to sacrifice time and comfort.

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Things I Learned...MCM 2014

Originally written after October 2014 Marine Corps Marathon/Wicked 10k Weekend

About 6 years ago my friend bet me I couldn't run a marathon, specifically the Marine Corps Marathon. And 3 years ago I showed up to run my first Team Hoyt race.

Countless races and dozens of marathons later I can't think of a better way to spend my anniversary weekend than doing what I love with the people I love. All because  decades ago Rick and Dick Hoyt lined up at the MCM to qualify for Boston.Things I learned...

I fill out a male sailor's  uniform better than any female Marine uniform.

The world is small and random and the connections you make, the friendships you cultivate have infinite power over where you end up, what you do, who you become.

Some of those people you connect with are just plain amazing. When you meet these people, you just want to be in their presence. You don't need to speak or do anything, you just want to be with them.

Mashed potatoes, red wine, and 15yr scotch seem to be the right combo for a pre-race meal.

Whirlwind weekends are stressful, but when conquered, and you collapse into a bed or bath or floor, you just feel amazing. Like you're the luckiest person in the world to have the problem of too many people to see in a world of too many things to do. Like procrastination, I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm always going to over book. I'm going to be on a tight schedule, and generally going to be stressed...at least I'm not bored.

Sometimes things just line up. Metros come on time, people are efficient, things go as planned. We never hear about these times. I've got to be better at noticing these times, and appreciating them.

Jenny Rainey is one of my favorite running partners. The girl just gets me. We're motivated by the same things, know each other's paces and looks and dark places.  We make each other better. We didn't even touch the iPods.

Running at it's core is selfish. And that's ok. Runners at mile 25 are so inside their own heads, fighting their own battles, concerned about their own finishing that they often fail to see or hear what's going on around them....to include chicks with a hot pink racing chair screaming "WHEELS." And that's ok, running puts you inside yourself and you gotta go there sometimes. You need to know yourself before you can ever  expect to find a place in the world. And when you get good at this running thing you effortlessly toggle between your own battle and those of others. It's a good thing I didn't need my iPod because I would have missed the countless words of encouragement or moments of assistance from runners on their own personal journey. Running may be selfish, but the runners today were anything but.

Hokas are amazing shoes. Goofy as hell, but amazing.

MCM has the weird effect of making you smile like a madwoman while holding back tears for 26.2 miles...if this is what a race does to me, I'll be a wreck whenever I get pregnant.

The shorter the shorts, the less the chafing. It's just science.

Teamhoyt running chairs are just awesome. Plain ole, wonderfully, PR-setting awesome.

If the day ever comes where I get married, I'm sure I'll love and celebrate my anniversary, but just between us, never as much I do this one.

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Things I Learned...Javelina 100 Miler

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Originally posted November 2014 after Javelina Jundred in Arizona. Southwest gives you a free drink on Halloween, but won't bring you two, even if you offer to pay for one.

Someone apparently releases cows into the AZ desert at night. Freaky.

Hallucinations suck, and they make me never want to try LSD.

Scott Jurek is a beautiful and inspirational writer and if you're looking for a new running book, grab his.

I can officially go 75 miles with no iPod, providing I have solid, albeit vulgar, company to entertain me. While we most likely mildly to grossly offended everyone else on the course, we were at least funny.

I went into this race with no specific preparation or plan and the complete willingness to call it quits, and somehow finished.  None of this is to say I'm an amazing athlete or anything. I truly don't know how I did it. I also ran with Gordy Ansleigh, the man that decided so many years ago to run a 100 mile horse race with no horse. He refused to accept convention or external limits on what the human body could accomplish. Others saw this and thought "if he can do it, so can I." I saw them and thought "if they can do it, so can I." And more importantly so can anyone. While I don't expect everyone to want to do it, I truly believe anyone can. Moreover, it makes me think about what else is out there that we don't even know we can do...

A sunrise at mile 2 may be beautiful in a conventional sense, but a sunrise at mile 87, regardless of it's lack of brilliant oranges and fiery reds, is damn near holy.

I'm pretty good about not freaking out on spiders, bugs, mice etc...but I do not do tarantulas nor rattlesnakes.

Endurance events are mostly about withstanding an increasing level of suffering, but more than that they're about control. They teach you that you have so much more control than you think. When the miles just tear you down and the dark takes you to a place you didn't know was there, you can control how you look at it, how you treat others in that same place, and you can control your pain. Endurance events allow you to tell the relenting miles that sure you're willing to suffer, but it's going to because you're flying down a mountain at mile 90 vice limping through it. If it's going to hurt, it's at least going to be fun, and it's going to be your way.

Pacers are amazing, wonderful people.

Whoever designed the brooks "Run happy" campaign never ran 100 miles. You can garner only so much strength from happiness. Other alternatives are pride, anger, hurt, and a friend constantly challenging you to toughen up and keep moving.

"Not technical" trails become very technical at night.

Running 100 miles really hurts, like a deep in your core desperate searing but also a dull ache hurt. I'm sure I already knew this, but I had clearly forgotten this nugget. I'm not sure how.

There is not enough lube in the world to fully prevent chafing over 100 miles. Trust me, if you apply on one area, it'll happen in a different, more unspeakable area.

I don't like to run behind someone. I like to feel in the lead. I've always like doing things on my own terms.

Desert night is dark. Miles 50-75 are darker. Sure you can get through it alone but it's nice to have hand on your back, guiding you out of the ditches, pulling you back when you fall asleep walking, and assuring you that your headlamp light is not a giant ball of white rice. Life, and all it's troubles and joys, is better shared.

A lot of people ask what we're running from, or running through, and some of us are doing just that. By and large people running 100 miles aren't perfectly adjusted normal people, and for a long time I loosely fell into this group. Bad breakup? Go for a run. Fight with the parents? Longer run. Failed at something? Work it out on the trail. And while all these things all still happen, more and more I get this sense that I'm heading towards somewhere or something and running is going to help me get there...literally or figuratively. Just not sure what or where or who that is, and at this point I'm really hoping 10ks provide me the same clues as 100 milers.

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