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It’s Not About the Running: What Really Matters

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

The Dalai Lama

A Failed Run?

Not long ago, a transconner friend of mine I’d met just outside Clermont, FL in late March of 2021 who accompanied me through Orlando set out on her own Big Run: a 2500+ mile trek from Maine to Key West. Her actual physical run was cut short at the time by unavoidable circumstances.

In her mind, she never stopped running.

I don’t just mean that she dreamed of finishing. We all do, and it’s seldom the case that the moment we imagined so long ago turns out like we expected. Rather, she never let her eyes off the primary goal: seeing what she was capable of and where the journey would take her.

More than Just the Miles

A relative of mine once stated with a confidence and certainty that running across a continent was an egotistical and self-indulgent act and the ultimate example of selfish disregard for the important things in life. I’ll give them credit for being PARTIALLY right. It’s perhaps how my big run run started. Maybe it’s how my friend’s started also.

To be honest, it DOES take a certain amount of selfish singlemindedness to undertake a major multi-month project that requires, to some degree, shutting out everything that isn’t running.

But somewhere along the way, maybe 500 miles in, deeper changes happen as the miles grind you down, and the reasons we start with, which many people assume drive us to the finish, just won’t, don’t…and CAN’T get you across a continent.

Something Has to Give

The problem is with the assumption that something that’s physically demanding is that and ONLY that, that it’s not any tougher on the mind or spirit than simply multiplying a marathon by 100.

Even 100-mile runs can be achieved in one “go” without sleeping. But by 200 miles and up, you start to get a little emotionally “wobbly.” People who just try to “toughen up” or “dig deeper” end up going to bad places. Hallucinations, fatigue, mental fogginess, transient depression and bitterness turn the runner against his or her pacers, crew, and loved ones who’ve come to watch–just when you need those people the most. Their love and selflessness is often rewarded harshly. I know because I’ve been that a-hole.

Toward the end of my first 200+ mile run, after 3 days without sleep, I could no longer remember my own birthday, and my crew had to lie to me about my pace and my progress to get me to take a 20-minute nap. I finished–with around 15 minutes to spare before the cutoff. As I paused before running to the finish, I looked around, noticed my pacer Josh, crew member Angie, my wife and crew chief Leslie, and my crew member Angie–a second time. Feeling like everyone I needed was there, I bolted to the finish. Ten minutes later, Josh and Leslie and Angie arrived. They had been at least half a mile behind me.

I had hallucinated them all.

So no, I don’t think it’s about hardening up at all. I think it’s about softening up.

The Journey Isn’t the Destination

My ultra running friend had planned like crazy for her north-to-south transcon, just as I had for mine. She had fretted over her daily mileage and what to load into her baby stroller-become-supply-cart.

And yet, the time came when she called a pause to her run after one setback piled on top of another. Narrow shoulders and fast traffic prevented her from making good progress. Difficulty pushing the stroller on bad shoulder added to delays, which pushed out her finish date, moving it into a season where the weather was not on her side. She’d had a limited window to finish the run before having to return from sabbatical, and long stretches without the opportunity to re-supply made it almost impossible to do the run as she had planned.

I talked to my friend after she paused her run. Surprisingly, she wasn’t discouraged. She felt she had done the right thing and looked forward to getting back out there.

But it wasn’t about reaching Key West any more.

A Failed Run? Or a Learning Experience?

I’m hard-pressed to view my friend’s paused transcon as anything other than a learning experience, and most definitely not a failure.

Does that mean she wasn’t disappointed? I doubt it.

I was very disappointed when my first half Ironman resulted in a flat tire and a 7-minute delay that caused me to DNF (Did Not Finish) on the bike portion. I was disappointed during my first 140.6 when I had to make the call to self-DNF on the swim due to 2-foot chop on a large lake in which one of the only two rescue vessels had capsized and another swimmer was face-down in the water and unresponsive.

I was disappointed during my run across the US when in late March 2020, after running 1241 miles from Newport Beach CA to Tarzan, TX and still emotionally reeling from my father’s passing just two weeks before, I was forced to pause the run due to COVID-related health, safety, and resupply issues. I didn’t resume running until at least 6 months had passed.

After picking up the run in Tarzan in September, I learned that fellow ultrarunner and budding transconner Rebecca Gartrell, who was attempting to break my record for the fastest run across Texas, had been hit by a car on the same stretch of road I was on. I was feeling incredibly sad, guilty and emotionally responsible for Rebecca’s death. I was not in a good place, physically OR mentally.

During that time, I snapped at family members during an inopportunely-timed group chat that occurred while I was on that road. I asked–probably too bluntly–if they could quiet it down for a while because I was running on a dangerous road. I must have said something truly awful, because the pain, hurt, and anger I received in response to my request seemed out of proportion. It made me wonder if I truly was that selfish and uncaring.

I spent weeks in a funk even as I continued running, feeling self-loathing, worry, and anxiety about reaching my father’s gravesite by the first anniversary of his passing in order to keep a promise I’d made to a vision of him outside Andrews that I’d leave him my running shoes and “see” him at the finish line. It was all I could focus on, and I felt like any delay in reaching the cemetery was a threat to my sanity.

That was when I came closest to quitting. I was already feeling down when I had to pause a 2nd time in Texarkana, now 1800 miles in, while COVID ravaged the Southeastern US. I was beyond disappointed. I felt a gnawing sense of hopelessness and an inability to control anything that was going on.

But I learned something.

The Humanity That Connects Us All

Looking back, I can see that I made some big mistakes…repeatedly. In fact, some of them were pretty egregious, and I know that some of them hurt people unintentionally.

During my first 200+ mile run, I left Leslie, Josh, and Angie behind near the finish line. It wasn’t out of selfish desire to gloriously cross the finish line without acknowledging the entire van full of people who made it possible, but I still left them behind, and it was beyond unkind. During my run across Iowa, I tried to correct those mistakes. After being delayed 16 hours by thunderstorms, hailstorms and at least one tornado (there’s a reason they shot the movie Twister in Iowa!), Upon reaching Dubuque and the Mississippi River, I begged a very tired Leslie to cross with finish with me; and this time, acknowledging that I hadn’t forgotten, she gave me her blessing to enjoy the moment.

When I finished my first run across Texas, I was privileged to be joined for the last 13 miles by my brother Walt. Here we are at the finish line.

I’m still a work in progress.

Walt and his wife Lila were beacons of light in the darkness. My brother’s selflessness and compassion taught me a lesson: that you don’t have to forget to forgive, that kindness connects us all, and that without it, we are nothing.

  • If we cannot accept or acknowledge kindness rendered by others–whether strangers, road angels, crew, family, or loved ones, we aren’t living–we’re just surviving, and not all that well.
  • If we cannot find a way to appreciate kindness in our most fragile, exposed, and vulnerable moments, we are closing out the world and turning back that love unaccepted.
  • If we cannot return kindness with kindness, we are doing the absolute minimum necessary to be a part of the human race.
  • If we cannot return anger with kindness, it will eat our souls.

During the USA run, my brother visited me again in Cross City, FL. By then the run was a physically grinding race against time to get past the mounting blisters and finish before I physically had no more to give. He gave me the precious gift of his time.

In those moments with Walt, I saw what truly matters. For every time I hadn’t visited, every time I hadn’t called, when my brother and his wife returned kindness.

If you’re the kind of person who’s into Bible quotes, look up Ephesians 4:32. Whether or not I deserved it, they were kind, and it restored my soul.

And that is what I remember most about the last several years. That, and the bold little flower growing up through the packed clay at the Eastland County Safety Rest Area just southeast of Strawn, TX.

I treasure the experience and all that went with it.

Final Thoughts

Flower growing through clay

When I started writing this post, I had intended the topic to be about how to post-mortem a failed run. Not just my friend’s run, but in many ways, my own. I had done a lot of things wrong, and much of what I learned I learned the hard way.

But every time I tried to write it, I kept running up against the feeling that no difficult task done with a mind open to the possibility of learning, growing, and gaining perspective could possibly be a failure.

I hope that my transconning friend knows she has not failed. In fact, most of all, I hope she has learned and been kind to herself. I say “I hope” because I know from experience that it is difficult.

We owe it to friends, family, loved ones, and even strangers, but especially to ourselves, to be kind.

  • NOT in the ways that THEY expect, because what they expect will change.
  • NOT out of sense of obligation, because obligation builds resentment.
  • Not even as repayment of debt in return for the kindness they’ve shown.

But to and for ourselves, to be present, to listen, and to honor the shared humanity that connects our hopes and dreams into an unfathomably beautiful and bittersweet existence that is to be enjoyed in all its messiness because of the wonderful gift that it is.