Last weekend I was reminded of something that I already knew: when you set out to accomplish a new and/or challenging feat, you have to really want to achieve it in order for it to become a reality. Beyond that, you need to have a plan and be committed to execute the plan, while cultivating open-mindedness so that you may adapt the plan as necessary.
For me, the something challenging was a 150-mile trail race. As in 150 miles by foot, on a trail, with a set number of hours to accomplish it. This is not completely unrealistic for me. To date, I’ve run a few 135-mile races in demanding terrains, including Badwater 135 and Brazil 135, as well as dozens of ultramarathon races, so I know what it takes to push myself past the limit of what seems possible. Grit is an active practice for me. 150 miles was conceivable.
There’s a back story. Late December 2016, I had completed my seventh race of 100 miles or more of the year; in total, my 27th running race of 100 or more miles. Reaching that finish line took everything that I had. Mentally and physically, I was tired. After the December race, I was adamant about taking a rest to let my body heal and more importantly, to give my mind a break. 2016 had been a year of new and often exciting developments on all fronts: my business, not yet a year old, was rapidly growing, and I had accepted a full-time college faculty position which amounted to teaching six writing courses a semester. When I wasn’t wearing a professional hat, I was training or running a race. In my downtime, I was writing. The coming new year was going to be the perfect time to take a month or two off of running, get in some cross training, and rejuvenate. To hold myself accountable to my plan, I had refrained from signing up for any races in 2017 until I felt 100%.
But a funny thing happened. Without giving it much thought, I kept going. All of my talk of finally taking a break after five plus years of nonstop running faded. Suddenly, I was back at building my weekly mileage. While I was able to go through the motions, I was still mentally and physically fatigued. At first, I blamed it on the holidays, being on the go nonstop. Then I blamed it the new year festivities and all of the high energy it demanded with activities and starting up a new semester.
Come mid-January, I was completely off my rest plan, and I was back to consistent training mileage. But I was still flat; running was movement versus meditation. I told myself if I kept pushing, it would pass. I would get on the other side of it, as was often the case with my training/race cycles. Instead, my running grew sloppier; during longer runs, I could not run more than a mile without having to stop, catch my breath, and regain my composure. Which is when I decided to defy reality, and sign up for a race! Sure, there were a number of 100-mile (or less) race options throughout the month of January, but I resolved that what I needed was a brand new challenge to kick-start my unresponsive body.
My buddy Eric was hosting his incredibly fun and upbeat Skydive Ultra, and as I had completed the skydive and 100-mile race during the event’s inaugural year in 2014, I decided to sign up for the 150-mile option. Why? Because why not? I would figure it out. I always did. I was aware that my running was deteriorating, but perhaps a race in two weeks’ time was what I needed to snap into gear. So what that my emotions towards running ranged from disinterested to lackluster? I was determined to go for it, and to use the hours of running solitude at Skydive Ultra to extricate my petty problems and engage with the world around me. It sounded good, but I wasn’t committed to the race. I vacillated between excitement and dread. The realist in me said, “you need a break, rest.” The adventurer in me said, “go for it! You can do it!” My decision to proceed with the race was the antithesis of mindfulness.
And thus, I began the race haphazardly. I had no plan to resort to, no real goal of when I was going to hit 25 miles, 50 miles, and so on. By 50 miles into the race, my body was fatigued. I got to the point that I could not run for more than a few minutes without getting winded. I wanted to run, but my body disengaged, and my mind followed its example. As the race faded, I became more focused on my upcoming week, writing a presentation in my mind that I needed to give Tuesday afternoon at the college. I debated some life changes that I was going to make in the next few months. And so on. The race stakes for me were not there this time around. The biggest debate was if I would stop after 70 miles, because as a friend on the course who knows me well said, “what’s the point of pushing yourself for hours more when you are exhausted?” But there was that in me that knew reaching the 100-mile mark would help me to let go and to call it a day without any second thoughts, and so I set that as my goal—it was my first and only ambition of the event. I had, in many respects, sowed my fate before I even put in the first mile by not asking myself what my goal was, what it meant to me, if I was committed to reaching it, and how I intended to accomplish it.
Upon reflection, the concept of going for something before I was sure I wanted it was not unfamiliar to me. How many times had I pursued a half-boiled goal—whether it involved work, career, or relationships—only to realize midway that it was not what I wanted after all? We can all create goals, but if we are not sure what they mean to us, we are not going to commit and go after them with the zest and vigor that we need to achieve them. Whether it pertains to pursuing a degree, a love interest, a job, or an activity, it takes time to figure out what we want, and to probe what achieving something means to us. And often, in our examination, we reinvent our goals. The thing about aspirations is that if we pursue the wrong ones, it’s hard to commit to the time, effort, and grit it requires to reach them. We will come up with endless excuses which are nonexistent when we go after the things in life that we truly desire.
My experience out on the race course reinforced the strength there is in listening, in being cognizant of what my body and my mind communicate. In life, we have to live all of the moments—the ones in which we are our best selves, and the ones that we reserve for recharging and redefining who and what we are at each new here and now. Showing up is always the first step, but if we show up to the wrong events, it only gets us so far.
Thoughts to consider when it comes to commitment, planning, and adaptation:
- Going with the flow is great, but stopping to access what you truly seek and desire is critical to your journey.
- Take your actions seriously. They are the manifestations of how you perceive yourself and how the world in turn perceives you.
- Plan for new things in your life. Sure, it’s fun to wing it at times, but sometimes – like when you are setting out to run 150 miles – you need to think it through, and prepare months or weeks in advance by creating a game plan that covers mental, physical, and emotional aspects.
- Plan for the unexpected by writing a few versions of your story to help you visualize what may occur. Then, cultivate an open mind and an open heart. Every time you snap into plan B mode, embrace it – wherever you are at is perfect.
- Have fun! Laugh! No matter what the outcome, each of your journeys make up the memories of your life. Make good memories. Laugh over what goes wrong—it is part of the story.
- When you are struggling, continue to smile and be good to others – it is not their fault you are struggling! But also confide in someone you trust about what’s going on. Ask for their thoughts/opinions on the matter and then figure out how it meshes with your thoughts and opinions. Strive for the right solution versus the easy one.
- Turn off autopilot every so often. Tune into yourself. You will always know you are on autopilot when you keep moving in a direction that you have been going in for a long time and overlook the scenery along the way.