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Looking Back and Smiling: Long Distance Running and the Importance of Gratitude

Lessons in pain and patience

During my run across Iowa, the physical pain was intense. I had broken ribs just the week before starting, and during the run had accumulated multiple blisters that had popped simultaneously at around mile 300 of 349. I was running 16 hours behind schedule due to thunderstorms and my ankles and feet had begun to swell to the point where my largest shoes were uncomfortable. When I finished, I was a miserable, twitchy mess.

I had promised myself I’d do better on my run across Texas, and to some extent, I did. I dropped my daily mileage from 50+ down to no more than 45 miles a day and tried to end each day’s running close to our lodging so I could maximize sleep. It helped some, but I hadn’t budgeted rest days and learned the hard way what 850 miles of running on cambered shoulder can do to your spine. The sciatica that followed was excruciating, and just as with my first 200-miler and Iowa, the lack of sleep, physical and emotional beat-down, and nightmares afterward took their toll.

I went into my USA run knowing the goal wasn’t speed or even enduring pain, but just to finish. Even that was harder than I anticipated. My dad passed away in March of 2020 just as I was approaching Carlsbad, NM. And as we all know now, there was also a once-in-a-century pandemic, one that brought many dreams to a screeching halt and changed lives forever. Jobs disappeared. People started hoarding and cooking more at home. There was definitely a feeling of things-are-not-alright in the air.

In that context, pausing what had been a bucket-list dream for an indefinite period of time left me feeling like all dreams had gone out the window and were up in the air, ready to be blown wherever the wind would take them.

As if running across the US weren’t hard enough.

Adjusting to changes

Almost immediately after pausing the run temporarily, some people told me that it “didn’t count” if I took time off from the effort. I let that thought dwell too long in my mind, and for a while, I trained multiple times a week, just in case the Big Run were to suddenly resume.

Then the weeks turned into months as Spring faded into Summer and into Fall. I needed to learn patience, so I planted apple seeds and nursed them to grow in pots. Patience was not an easy thing for me to learn. When I finally resumed running in September 2020 and then again in March 2021 after a resurgence in pandemic numbers, I was more than ready to get the whole thing over with, whatever that meant, and get on with life. My attitude had grown somewhat sour, and I either needed to finish the run or get back to work while I still had clients. Not being done gnawed at me.

When I finally finished in April 2021, there was a fair bit of national media attention, which lifted my spirits somewhat. Leslie, I, our cameraman Adam and fellow runners, including 15-year-old Briar Rose (who later that same year set the record for the youngest person to run across the U.S.) were met by a Disney team of approximately 300 cast members. We were assigned a Disney camera crew and hospitality coordinator and showered with gifts and hospitality. Acting Disney World president Melissa Valiquette presented me with a custom-made Mickey Mouse cap celebrating the run from Disneyland to Disney World. People I hardly knew came out of the woodwork to congratulate me. Two different Orlando news stations sent crews to cover the story, including one in a helicopter. Inside Edition, Good Morning America, and the Drew Barrymore Show did bits about the run. I share this not to brag–after all, it’s now two-year-old news–but to give an idea of just how surreal things seemed at the time, like they weren’t happening to me.

Yet others offered an unwelcome dose of opinion about how I was a selfish attention seeker with no regard for others. Trolls popped up on LetsRun and Reddit claiming, when my GPS dropped out (I had mislocated it once briefly in a canyon near Moonlight Rim, CA, then crushed it on a highway outside Tucson), that I had cheated. At what exactly I have no idea, but the jealousy, hatred and disbelief from people who didn’t know me and had never attempted such a thing were evident. Piled on top of that was the fact that during the U.S. run, I had learned that Rebecca Gartrell’s attempt to break my record for the fastest run across Texas had ended in her death at the hands of a hit-and-run motorist. I felt responsible for creating an attractive goal that had ended the life of someone else. The bad feelings were probably aggravated by the fact that at least at a biological level due to the extreme stress and exhaustion of a transcontinental run, I was depressed, having nightmares, not sleeping well, and generally not in a good place.

In processing all that negativity at one of the most emotionally challenging times of my life, I learned that for most people, their pain is not something you caused. Their lives are about them–that no matter what they say, it has nothing to do with you. At best, your grand drama, no matter how personal or deeply experienced, is a catalyst, not a cause, for their feelings. For some of the people I knew, their only experience of my run was my withdrawal from their lives and single-minded focus on completing a task whose true personal significance was limited in their estimation by their understanding of it. Nothing outside that mattered to them, and how they felt about any of it was their choice.

However, it was clear to me that I had been a catalyst, that the path I had chosen had sent little ripples through their lives that weren’t altogether pleasant. Even if their pain wasn’t my fault, things weren’t entirely beyond my control. Despite what I’d learned in the three big runs I’d done, I still needed to focus on something and someone other than myself, and that meant directing my attention outward, not inward.

At about the time I finished the USA run, I had a difficult and very stressful conversation with a close family member who asked bluntly when I would stop being the center of my own world. It was a fair question–for the last half a dozen years, I had been building up to a dream that was the sole focus of my attention.

But now that dream had come and gone. I told her at the time that the USA run was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, that it wasn’t all I was, and that while I had set many important things aside for the time being, they were still important and would return to my attention once I had recovered.

But at the time, my response was more an expression of hope than realized truth. The jury was still out on who I really was and whether the run had made me a better person or worse one.

I had yet to discover that myself.

Regaining perspective

I’ve had two years to think about it since then, and believe me, I’ve thought a lot about it. Convincing people you care about them when you’ve ignored them for years is a tall order. And if I’m honest with myself, I can’t say that I don’t still obsessively focus on my goals. I think it’s almost impossible to disconnect from our own experiences in the world as we try to relate them to what others are going through.

but I try in my own way to get outside my own head.

I try way more than I used to to “come up for air”, re-emerge into the real world, and pay attention to the people around me. I’ve tried to celebrate the victories of others without drawing the inevitable reference to something in my own experience. But it’s a process, not a product, a constantly evolving thing, and I don’t know how good I am at it until I see the results.

And in that process, the conscious focus on the people and things around me has led me to this one truth: Whatever else I may be, I am connected to others and I am grateful:

  • For the chance to have seen Backyard America firsthand and complete my Big Dream
  • For my wife Leslie’s constant patient, loving support for body and soul, and for her critical role in making a shared dream come true
  • For my beloved brothers Walt and Chris, both of whom gave generously of their limited schedule to share an important moment with me
  • foe the patience of those who did not feel so generous but tolerated the adventure anyway
  • For fellow transconners who’ve taught me that whatever I feel about my run, I’m not alone
  • For the bravery of those who shared their feelings, memories, compassion, and stories, even when it was not easy, and for teaching me the importance of letting people know their lives matter
  • For being reminded to attend to the little important things, and for the chance to change
  • For the insight others have given me on how our lives look to others from the outside, and what we’re missing
  • For the chance to say goodbye to my dad before he passed, and to tell him he’d done a good job as a father and that I was proud of him
  • For the loving presence and spiritual support of my bio-dad Jim “Pops” Carr, who never gave up on being an important part of my life, and who has continued to selflessly help me through years of soul-searching both before and after the Big Run
  • For the chance to have two proud fathers to look up to
  • For the cops who stopped traffic to clear the way at the finish line, and for the countless others who wished us well as they stopped and checked on us
  • For the people who ran with me, chatted with me, and kept Leslie company while she waited for me
  • For the kindness and humanity of strangers who shared their stories and met us along the way, like the man who collected recyclable trash along the CA-111 freeway to buy bikes for kids, for the tough-looking biker who told us how his brother was diagnosed with type 1, the RV camp owner who prayed over us with his wife, and the lady who brought bottled water from a church in Cisco, TX and helped me realize that the Divine is all around us
  • For the American Bully pup in Duncanville, AL who was supposed to be guarding a house but went for bellyrubs instead of biting me; and for Bodie, Cookie, Duncan, and Dogales for happily running alongside me despite not knowing where I was going or whether I had any doggy treats
  • For simple pleasures like clean clothes, cold water, shade, cloud cover, a good hat, and gentle rain
  • For the cool, misty mornings like the one that greeted me on my final approach to Melbourne and Indialantic, FL and the chance to wade into the ocean in my running shoes
  • For the wonder of each and every foggy sunrise, smoky sunset, and asphalt-defying flower I encountered along the way
  • And for the 9-foot tall apple tree in my back yard that reminds me that in time, blessings can grow from the smallest of things given enough patience and love.

It is my greatest hope that looking back, I will begin to appreciate more the threads that connect the precious transience of our shared humanity, warts and all. But there is no guarantee.

In the mean time, I can focus on gratitude.

For in the end, the ability to appreciate the journey is what makes it worth taking.