Six weeks have passed since I surprised myself and several people watching by bursting into tears at the finish line of the Miwok 100K.
I wrote an article for Trail Runner about Miwok but neglected to write a personal race report. Preoccupied, I let this blog go dormant to focus on some other challenges and opportunities. Now I feel like circling back and making some sense of it.
Some races I focus on being a competitor, my mind sharply attuned to pace, form and physical sensations. This was not one of those races. Instead, the Miwok 100K was as much a head trip as a 62-mile race that climbed some 12,500 feet. It did not go as I hoped. My body chemistry got out of whack—I think I over-hydrated and therefore got swollen and wasn’t able to pee—and then my IT band unexpectedly flared up, making me limp and shuffle on downhills where I normally run strong. Getting passed by so many runners, and being more than an hour off pace from my hoped-for time, felt demoralizing.
But it was an important race personally in terms of prompting me to think deeply about what the hell I was doing out there and where I am headed.
My 45th birthday fell within days of the Miwok race, and through those achy miles in the Marin Headlands plagued by muscle cramps and doubt, I contemplated the passage of time and what I have accomplished but also missed midway through life. My babies have become teenagers, and I have been with Morgan exactly two-thirds of my life (we got together in 1984 when I was 15, so it’s been 30 years now)—and these facts stunned me. I wondered how it could be that when I was a teenager, each year felt so long and momentous; but now, in my mid-40s, a decade can pass in what feels like a mere few years?
I also opened my mind to envision my dad and beloved dog. They both died last year, and it hit me they truly were gone and I’d never see them again. I actually imagined them on the trail in a hallucinatory way, hearing my dad’s voice and carrying on a conversation with him, feeling my dog’s fur and reliving some of the best, happiest memories. I released the pain and regret of negative feelings and ugly memories that overshadow my feelings toward my father and apologized for our misunderstandings. I missed him and my dog so profoundly that I shed tears on the climb up Rodeo Valley Trail at Mile 40, my vision of the sweeping views of the Marin Headlands blurring from tears and exhaustion. I can’t recall being such a mess—on the verge of falling apart emotionally and physically—to that degree during a race before.
The big questions piled on with each mile, as challenging as the terrain: Given how the years race by, what am I going to do with the limited amount of time left in my “prime of life”? Given that my well-laid career plans from my 20s fizzled, then what, besides running and parenting, do I feel really proud of and have I worked hard to achieve? And really, why the hell was I making myself run and hike so hard for more than 13 hours when it hurt so much?
That’s what an ultra can do: It can transport you way outside of your comfort zone, make you feel like you’ve lived a lifetime in a day, and then reduce you to tears.
When I thought about the “why” of training for and running this race, I rehashed familiar answers: to test personal limits, to explore new territory, to discover that I am stronger than I think, and to work through low points to experience intense highs. The overriding reasons involve growth and improvement. But then I asked myself, what good are those qualities and experiences if I can’t carry them over to my life outside of running?
For me, overcoming the challenges of an ultra does not automatically or easily carry over to regular life. By contrast, many endurance athletes feel the way my friend Garett Graubins described when asked during this podcast interview how overcoming mental challenges in ultra races affects his personal and professional life. “There’s no doubt it carries over,” he said. “After you cross the finish line of one of these races, there’s this euphoric sense that there are few things you can’t accomplish in your life if you just are willing to work hard, never back down and be as stubborn as a mule.”
During Miwok and in the days that followed, I recognized that I develop strength and talent as a runner in part to compensate for shortcomings I feel in other areas of my personal and professional life. At times and to varying degrees, I literally run away from challenges or opportunities that frighten me.
This weighed on my mind during Miwok because in the days before the event, I was asked to take on a leadership role that gave my stomach knots of nervousness. The role is chairing a committee on the board of trustees for a private secondary school that I care deeply about—a time-consuming multi-year commitment involving a campaign with tens of millions of dollars at stake. Rather than seize the opportunity and feel excited about all I could learn and do through it, I became mired in doubt, focusing on what I lack rather than the qualities I possess that made them ask me in the first place. I worried I would let others down, that my lack of business acumen would be exposed, and that I would not be able to speak intelligently in front of the committee or with the two wise and powerful men with whom I’ll work closely. In short, I experienced a deep fear of failure. I sold myself short to those who encouraged me to take the position, essentially saying I couldn’t do it and wouldn’t be good at it, before I had even tried.
During Miwok I realized I had to fundamentally change my attitude; otherwise, what good is being a hard-core runner who says “you can do anything you put your mind to” if that persona runs and hides once she gets off the trail? I became an accomplished trail runner because I put in the time and hard work of training over many seasons. When faced with challenges outside of running that seem daunting, I realized I would have to give myself time and training to succeed in the long run, rather than pressuring myself to know everything and perform perfectly from Day One.
I vowed to take on that challenge and other opportunities—to “lean in,” as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg advocates her terrific book, and to ask myself, “what would I do if I weren’t afraid?”
So, a lot of what I’ve been doing recently involves trying harder to carry over that sense of adventure—that willingness to try and work hard at new and difficult things, and to pace myself to learn and make progress gradually, rebounding from setbacks rather than giving up—to my life outside of ultrarunning.
I said “yes” to the board position and am working hard to climb that steep learning curve. I also said yes to some new assignments at Trail Runner magazine, and yes when Eric Schranz asked me to guest co-host some UltraRunnerPodcast.com episodes—even though I cringed at the sound of my recorded voice and worried I would babble idiotically. I ended up having so much fun doing it that I hope to do it again. (Here are links to those episodes, during which we interviewed Liza Howard, Dakota Jones and Mike Wolfe.)
I guess the tears at the finish line represented a cathartic release of the fear of failure, the pain of discomfort, the loss of youth and loved ones. It wasn’t just that Miwok was physically hard and I doubted my ability to finish. It’s that on some level—though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I felt it—I knew I had to get to the finish to move on, and to seize and embrace the second half of life that lies ahead.