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Grit, Tenacity, Patience and Gratitude: Lessons From the Open Road
As I’ve pushed my physical, psychological, and spiritual limits on ultra endurance events over the past few years, I’ve picked up some lessons the hard way. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned.
What I’m Bad At
When I first considered doing a half Ironman, then a full, I was already in my mid-fifties and not getting any younger. I had been sedentary and 50 pounds overweight until the age of 42. I didn’t really know how to swim.
It wouldn’t have made sense to sign up at that point because I wasn’t anywhere near ready. I didn’t even know what I was bad at, much less where I demonstrated potential. I trained for a couple solid years, running or riding a bike every chance I had (even during work-related trips to California). I took swimming lessons, practiced at the gym and a local pool.
I had felt confident in the pool, but once the edges of the pool were gone, I was forced to learn whether I could actually swim. It was on one of my first open water swim events that I learned the hard way just how bad at swimming I really was–still.
Which brings us to…
The Value of Making Little Mistakes
The truth is that I was bad at swimming in any body of water that wasn’t crystal clear with concrete walls.
I didn’t know how to self-rescue, and was prone to panicking when things didn’t go perfectly. Once, during a sprint event at a local lake, someone kicked my goggles off my face, and I just barely managed to grab them and my cap before they would have sunk to the lake bottom. I remember paddling with the goggles in my left fist, the cap in my right, first toward the kayaker, who didn’t see me, then toward the nearest shore. That’s all my nearsighted eyes could spot.
If you know anything about swimming, you probably know about “fist drills.” That’s where the swim coach tells you to make a fist instead of an open palm, and try pulling through the water without the advantage of the drag that palm creates. It’s meant to teach you to position your forearms in the stroke so that they help move you through the water.
Fist drills are hard–especially when you have to do them to get to safety. But that’s why you do them. Getting my goggles kicked off my face taught me that: 1) occasionally your goggles get kicked off your face, 2) you have to have a plan for dealing with that either before or after it happens, and 3) you have to accept, adapt, and move on.
I wasn’t glad that the kayaker shouted at me for going the wrong way. I told her I was nearsighted and had nearly lost my Rx goggles and was swimming toward what I could actually see. She let me hold onto the kayak while I put them back on, and told me how to do it one-handed and drain water from them at the same time. I was glad for the advice, and in retrospect, I was glad I had the chance to screw up on an insignificant race.
In retrospect, I was glad that other swimmer had kicked my goggles off my face. Because after that, I spent time at my local pool yanking my goggles off and putting them back on as I swam. Sometimes I’d even have Leslie toss them to me in the water so I could practice swimming without them and then grabbing them while they sank. It helped.
Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em
After that sprint open water race, I doubled down on improving the areas where I had weaknesses, which for a 55+ year old guy were many.
Despite all the training, I knew that my prime physical conditioning years were probably far behind me. Therefore, I had to work within my own limits.
I knew by late summer 2016 that I was capable of swimming 2.4 miles in open water, riding my bike at least 100 miles in less than the maximum time allowed, and running a marathon, all on the same day. Because I knew I didn’t have a lot of wiggle room, I practiced “banking” some time by keeping my transitions (the idle time between sports) as brief as possible. I felt that on an average day, I could finish an Ironman, or the equivalent.
Then came the day in August when the HITS Waconia 140.6 was supposed to start. There had been thunderstorms all night and into the early morning. As we swimmers waited in the shallows for the starting gun, the two rescue vessels struggled to remain upright in the water. 18-inch waves pounded the shore, lifting us up and slamming us down against the sandy bottom. Visibility was less than a quarter mile.
I made it 400 meters into the swim and promptly aspirated a large amount of water. I coughed instinctively to get it out of my lungs, but saw another wave coming. When I signaled for help, the rescue boat sped away, I realized that someone’s day was going worse than mine. I swam back to shore, walked up to the judges’ desk, and voluntarily DNF’d myself. So did 50% of the other swimmers. In fact, I learned that the reason the rescue boat sped away after I signaled it was that another swimmer was face down in the water and not breathing.
Later in the day, there were several serious bike accidents from cyclists going at uncontrolled speeds on wet roads.
Wishing for a miracle that morning probably would have killed me, and even if I had survived the swim, I probably would have hospitalized myself during the bike.
Go Slow to Go Fast
Even when you work within your limitations, you may be surprised that you can do better. Not every race is won, or even finished, by force alone. Sadly, I see a lot of athletes who are better than I am make that same mistake over and over.
Emmett Hines, the late swim columnist for Texas Runner and Triathlete Magazine, once said that the best advice he ever got was to focus on where each part of your body was in the water–pick just one body part for the day’s practice, but really get to know where it was and what the water felt like going over it. By doing this, I learned to let my hands follow my arms out of the water, to lift my arms up just high enough to drop them back in the water forward of where they were, and to feel the water gliding past my torso and legs. I learned to lower my above-water stroke, gently lower my arm into a vertical position for the below-water push, straighten my feet instead of leaving them at an “L” angle with my legs, and kick just enough to get out of my own wake.
I learned the same thing about running: to run relaxed and conscious of what I was doing: “catching myself falling” rather than “climbing the road,” and to run in a way that took advantage of my body’s elasticity rather than its rigidity. I learned to not try to push through pain, but to acknowledge that I was feeling it, and think rationally about what to do about it–often sitting down on a guardrail and massaging a sore spot, or adjusting my sock, or something similar.
In both cases, when I was mindful of my body, I found that I was in a better mood, less likely to tire out, enjoyed the sport more, and still went faster than I had been going before, despite not trying as hard. I found that I could summon speed when I needed to–for instance, to make across a long bridge before traffic came–though I seldom wanted to as I increased my distances.
Address Problems Early
…While you still have options.
Preparing for potentially disastrous situations not only keeps you honest about what you can and can’t do; it trains you to anticipate problems. They won’t always come, but when they do, you’ll be prepared for them, and maybe just maybe then they won’t be problems.
If you fail to anticipate and notice problems when they are about to occur, I guarantee you will have a harder time dealing with them in the moment.
I learned early on after DNFing (Did Not Finish) at Ironman Galveston 70.3 a few years earlier that if you choose puncture-resistant Gatorskin tires, the price you pay is that they’re almost impossible to remove quickly if you actually get a flat. The good news is, they “clinch” the rim so tightly that they can function as tubeless tires provided you fill them with slime after you’ve gotten a flat. So I bought a small can of slime and put it in my bike bag for such an emergency.
The next full 140.6 on the calendar after HITS Waconia was Ironman Texas The Woodlands in April of 2017, three months before I was supposed to do my 100-mile run in Kansas, the Honey Badger 100. 2016’s Ironman Texas had seen even worse weather than the 2016 HITS Waconia: storms so violent the swim had been cancelled race morning and the bike portion had been first cut from 112 to 90 miles, then paused on and off while people tried to dry out under overpasses and avoid being blown off the road. There were rumors that the morning of the swim would be foggy, as Houston at that time of the year had cold, humid mornings and sweltering, humid afternoons.
I decided to focus on what could go wrong. It could be foggy. I really couldn’t find an opportunity to swim train in fog, so I packed a pair of clear and a pair of blue Rx swim goggles that were supposed to make it easier to see on days with cloud cover and low visibility.
My training on the bike had shown me that the real slow-downs had been traffic stops and the handful of stops I had made to get a gel or drink of Gatorade. Leslie and I decided to focus on shortening my breaks. I practiced fueling while riding, only to find that runner’s gels were impossible to manage one-handed without littering, which apart from being illegal, can get you disqualified from a race. Instead, I carried a one-gallon Ziploc bag of dried pineapple slices. I found that they rehydrated well if I let them sit in my mouth with a sip of water from my bike bottle.
We also practiced handing off my empty bike bottle to Leslie in a parking lot and picking up a full one on the second loop, to anticipate the ride-in bottle pickup setup at IMTX. Finally, despite the fact that I loved my water cold, I trained with lukewarm water in disposable bottles so that I could get used to the water they’d hand me during the race.
I practiced in headwinds, on cold days, on hot days, on humid days, whatever days sucked the most. I picked a training route that mimicked what I’d encounter at the race. I rode in a century bike rally in Victoria, TX that had an almost identical elevation profile to Ironman Texas in The Woodlands. And I tracked my time meticulously. In the end, I knew I could finish the swim on time if nobody deliberately grabbed me and tried to drown me; I felt confident that I could finish the bike part on time even with traffic; and my training for the Honey Badger 100 mile run left me feeling confident I could run on tired legs.
It wouldn’t be fun, but I knew I could do it as long as I didn’t wipe out, blow a tire, or drown.
That was probably one of the reasons I actually finished with some time to spare (my time was 15:20:34, which isn’t bad for a 57-year-old guy who had only learned to swim a couple years before).
Reframe the Issues
In October 2017, I did my first 200+ mile run, a solo run of the 223-mile 2017 Capital to Coast Relay, which started in downtown Austin, TX and finished on the coast in Corpus Christi. Still coming off my experience running the Honey Badger 100 four months prior, the only thing I knew about those distances was that 1) you will get blisters–horrible, full-foot blisters–if you don’t sit down periodically; and 2) you will hallucinate if you go too long without sleep.
In retrospect, both of those were avoidable, at least to an extent. True, I was under time pressure to finish the first 50 miles in under 14 hours, which I did with 90 minutes to spare. But I tried to do too much too fast, leaving myself exhausted and dehydrated for the 2nd half of the race and limping throughout the night.
That was my first lesson about pain. And with apologies to the great David Goggins, pain is not something you suck up. It’s something you adapt to and learn to live with. You don’t seek it, but like a snake in your car, but you do get to know it as well as you can so you can avoid getting bitten.
I knew at C2C 223 I’d have to do something different. So Leslie and I put together a spreadsheet detailing where my breaks would be and how long they’d take, and how many miles I’d run a day. My meals were allowed 1 hour, snack breaks were supposed to take 5 minutes, come every 5 miles, and I was supposed to run 65 miles the first day, 58 miles the 2nd, 55 miles the 3rd day, and 45 miles that last day.
In reality, I killed a lot of time having my feet taped, sitting down way past 5 minutes while the crew looked for food, and picking my way through weeds on shoulderless roadside in the dark of night, hypnotized by my headlamp. Since there was a finish time clock, I borrowed sleep time to run; and by the morning of the last day, I couldn’t remember my own birthday. At that point, I had had 7 hours of sleep in 3 days, and I actually mistook an anthill for a guardrail.
The obvious problem was that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. But it wasn’t until 2.5 days into the run that we started cutting my breaks short and taking them walking in order to maximize sleep.
Once Leslie reframed the main challenge as doing everything we could to maximize my sleep time, everything about our strategy for ultra runs changed. It was a lesson we’d have to carry forward to the next race.
Hope is Not a Plan
Next on my list was a solo run of Relay Iowa, 339 miles from the Missouri River in Sioux City to the Mississippi River in Dubuque.
I knew I had to do something different if I was going to attempt a run nearly 1.5 miles as long as C2C. There was no way I could just multiply what I’d done at C2C.
During C2C, I had learned to consciously sit down more often, take brief walking breaks (thanks, Jeff Galloway!), and wear desert running gear during the hottest parts of the day. I carried a water quiver to encourage myself to drink when I wanted to rather than waiting for stops. I tried to get in a lot of miles during the night so I could take little siestas during the day.
But in reality, I had little idea how I’d scale up from 223 miles to 339. And that was the problem. More miles on my feet meant an even greater need for rest, protein, and blister prevention.
Here’s what I learned: as you scale up your effort, count on running into problems you didn’t encounter at lower levels of effort. These could include unanticipated pain (for instance, back pain from running hundreds of miles on cambered / slanted road shoulder), fatigue (from insufficient sleep or nutrition), volatile moods, illness (nausea, high blood sugar in the case of type 1 diabetes, etc.), and more.
You won’t always be able to practice for your run across Iowa or Montana or wherever by running across a smaller state (perhaps you will!), but you can practice running multiple days back to back, with and without adequate sleep, in different shoes, trying different diets, or with different gear or clothing. As much as possible, anticipate what the reality is likeliest to be; and if you cannot train for all of it, then train for each part of it, and at the very least, familiarize yourself with the problems you’ll encounter so you know then when you see them.
Do the Research & Learn From Others
Before I ran across the USA, I joined the Facebook group USA Crossers. After asking for help with route planning, I got half a dozen different routes, which I labeled on several AAA maps according to who had run them previously. Some of the routes went through mountains, which would be beyond my ability to do in late winter, when I had planned to start in order to reach Florida before it got too hot. I had considered different times of year for a starting date, and discovered that December-January was monsoon season in the American Southwest. Desert roads were prone to flooding, as they indeed did during one of our route-scouting trips in 2019.
Also, some USA Crossers’ routes went over dangerous causeways like the Mobile Bay Bridge. When I consulted the fellow who had taken that route, he had said he ran it at 3 AM to avoid traffic. But had there been any traffic, it would have killed him, because there is NO shoulder for about 3 miles and it’s a 2-lane bridge.
Similarly, I had been concerned about CA-62 from Tamarack Road near Banning, and the route past the the Indian Casino north around Joshua Tree, partly because many of the roads were Morongo tribal lands, and while they might allow cars on it to get to the casino, I had heard reports that the roads were off limits to runners, as they are on the Gila River / Apache tribal lands in Arizona. Moreover, Tamarack dead-ends onto a sandy path up a hill that’s only traversable by off-road vehicles. Finally, once you emerge from that sandy road onto a utility service road just west of CA-62, CA-62 continues northward up a steep hill called the Morongo Grade, a six-lane superhighway with a 2-foot shoulder that goes past a military base known for inattentive drivers.
I pressed my safety concerns despite the unpopularity of the topic as well as my proposed southern route around Joshua Tree National park. It was at that point that I learned from another USA crosser that there was a southern route and a better way to get out of the LA basin than the Morongo grade.
The idea was to follow along the railroad tracks past the Banning Airport for perhaps half a mile, then emerge at the western extreme of Johnson Ave / Railroad Ave, which had almost no traffic, owing to the fact that it really didn’t go anywhere useful. From there, the plan was to head past Mons toward the south side of Joshua Tree. The route even spits the runner out on the safe side of CA-111 going into Palm Springs. Past Palm Springs, the road into Mecca and Box Canyon empties onto a dirt road called Power Line Road that parallels I-10 (and no further than half a quarter mile from the highway) for almost 20 miles, emerging near CA-177. We scouted that route by car, and it was perfect. I asked my fellow Crosser for advice on running that road and was abundantly rewarded with insights into route logistics, food, and lodging along the way (hello, RV park in Desert Center!) that I would have otherwise only gotten through experience.
Look for Little Victories
The fact is that the longer you run, especially over multiple days, weeks, or months, sooner or later something is going to put you in a bad mood. It can be as simple as tripping and falling. A bruised ego takes far longer to heal than physical damage.
In the mean time, you have to find something positive in the day to celebrate.
That should not be a challenge. For most of us, when we first start to resume a life of physical activity, we high-five ourselves for walking a mile, or lifting 10-pound weights for a few reps. It’s more than we did yesterday, isn’t it?
But somehow, as we come to expect more of ourselves, we forget that the key is to rediscover those little somethings to feel victorious about: for instance, finishing the third consecutive day of running 50K (31.2 miles) a day, rather than feeling down about the fact that you didn’t put in the expected 34 miles because of torrential rains. Or just running 31 miles in the rain! How badass is that?!
If you don’t celebrate what you’ve done, it’s just work. Simply choosing to be legitimately happy about some part of it makes it an accomplishment.
Gratitude Affects Attitude
It should not come as a surprise, then, that making a conscious choice to be happy about what you’ve done and what you’re doing is closely related to the choice to appreciate what you are given.
A hot day is also a bright, sunny day. A rainy day is also a break from the heat. You get to decide.
If you are grateful for the cooling rain instead of unhappy with the wet roads, you will find that you make it farther without dwelling on things that upset you. Time will appear to flow faster. Without thinking, sixteen miles will be underneath your feet and it will be time for your lunch break. You’ll feel good about being halfway done with the day and counting down the miles until 50K is done. You will run more relaxed, faster, with less pain and fewer annoyances.
Will you still get sand blown in your face by that truck? Certainly! But now you will bow your head to keep it out of your eyes, and you will notice the four whose drivers honked friendly greetings and changed lanes to avoid hitting you.
It is easier to get up and face the next day when you do not see it as an enemy. Remember, no one promised that day to you, so accept it, along with everything it possesses, as a gift.
In late March of 2020, during my run across the USA, I had made it to Tarzan, TX, at mile 1261. The next day’s run was supposed to be a mere 28 miles into Big Spring.
When we got to the hotel that night in Big Spring, it was nearly vacant, because it was the height of COVID lockdowns and people had stopped traveling. When we made a supply run to the town’s grocery stores, they had pretty much been stripped clean, and we literally could not even find water. Our 30-gallon supply in the van was running low from the runs across the US’s 3 deserts (Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan), and fresh food was in short supply.
We made a call to pause the run temporarily and drive back to Dallas while we could still get home without being told to stop short and “shelter in place.”
At the time, I thought it would be maybe 3 weeks before we got going again. Leslie thought it would be at least 9 months. She was closer to the correct answer: 6 months to the day before we saw even the slightest drop in COVID numbers, ONLY for the Texas part of our route, AND we had finally managed to accumulate enough sanitizing wipes to clean the hard surfaces of any place we might stop. We had to readjust our lodging to be in places that had cross-ventilation (think “farm house”) and could be verified vacant for 3 days prior to reservation (think “Air B&B”).
Meanwhile, I trained. At first, I trained running, with Leslie supplying me from the van so I didn’t have to take my unvaccinated self into a high-traffic convenience store for snacks. I carried two full water bottles in a back-quiver and two in hand on my 50K hill training runs. Then as the summer wore on, I grew somewhat fatalistic about when the run would restart, and pivoted my training to long distance swimming, which was more suitable to the hot summer temps anyway.
We bided our time until September 24 presented an opportunity to resume the run in Big Spring. I found that during that six month hiatus, my swim training had taught me a greater portion of mental discipline, self-control, and an ability to summon calm that I would have had if I had been able to continue the run six months prior.
Looking back, it was time well spent, because the delay allowed us to reach Walt Disney World (my first “finish line” before reaching the coast) after they had reopened. Had I continued in Big Spring, they would have been closed when I arrived.
There is Never a Best Time, Only the Best Time Available
I didn’t like having to pause in Big Spring. Leslie and I discussed what to do next: whether to take a wait-and-let-it-blow-over approach, and finally, how long to hunker down for. The pause forced us to re-evaluate some of our plans. We had to determine what to do with the remainder of the groceries we had bought for the run, including bulk quantities of pudding, cookies, and high-calorie junk food, that had expiration dates. We had to get back to our normal lives, even though we had put them on freeze deliberately just a few weeks before.
Summer came and went, and I began to wonder if we’d ever get back on the road or get farther than I’d gotten on my last run. Texarkana seemed like the end of the road.
Then just after 2021’s hard freeze, something amazing happened: there was a significant drop in the COVID numbers. It actually appeared that things were changing for the better. Not a full-blown cause for celebration, mind you, but enough of a drop in the numbers that Arkansas, which had looked 50-50, now looked doable; Mississippi and Alabama, which had looked epidemiologically like third-world countries, now looked well under control; and Florida had consistently shown very mild numbers from Tallahassee to Orlando, with the exception of a few “hot zones” in the big cities. Our plan for avoiding contact and continuing the run looked doable.
The right time had finally come. We scrambled to replace the expiration-sensitive groceries, loaded the van back up, and hastily printed out an updated run planning spreadsheet and cue sheets.
When we restarted, I had just enough time to run from Texarkana to my dad’s gravesite in Greenwood to arrive between his birthday (it would have been his 84th) and the one-year anniversary of his passing. That seemed like a good omen. And just like that, on March 2, 2021, we were back on the road in Texarkana and I was running through Arkansas like no time had passed.
I cannot tell you whether that was the best time to resume a run during a pandemic; only that it was a good time to resume it, that we would almost certainly have paused it again if we had to, and that I was very, very happy when we actually finished.
One of the things I learned from having to wait a total of 10 months to resume a run that had been at least 2 years in the planning is that epic things often happen on epic time scales. Whether that’s 42 days, 90 days, or 431 days is irrelevant. If it’s a big enough project, at some point you’re likely to be overshadowed by the sheer magnitude of the undertaking. It’s easy to get so sucked up in the pain, fatigue, stress, exhaustion, frustration, and emotional ups-and-downs that you lose your way. But it’s precisely during those times that you need to listen to your internal compass: the part of you that remembers why you set out, how hard you trained, and can reach into that still, quiet place inside you and summon a sense of calm resolve.
You get knocked down, but you get up again. (Yeah, I know…now that song’s stuck in your head. Mine, too.)
It really is that simple.
Appreciate Those Who Invest in Your Success
Sometimes it’s easier summoning up the resolve to press on alone than it is to acknowledge those who care most about you and your undertaking.
Being physically tough and mentally resilient may get you through weeks of running against 70-mph traffic in a sandstorm in oilfield country (ask me how I know), but if what does is turn you into a withdrawn, jumpy, reactive, and angry road warrior, then you haven’t come back from the war.
Toward the end of my run across Iowa, I was feeling whole new kinds of pain. I had edema in my legs, a swollen ankle, and at one point when Leslie asked me if I wanted to sit down, I told her that if I sat down I wouldn’t get up again. I was bitter, fatalistic, and a general pain in the ass to be around. I was barely holding it together; but regardless, it wasn’t what she deserved from me…ever.
When you summon the calm that keeps you going, remember that part of the reason you can summon that calm is because someone out there cares about you. That someone is deeply invested in your success and likely making sacrifices to ensure it.
For many (like me), that special person is a spouse who’s generously sacrificed her time to help you live your dreams.
Think about that for a minute. Someone who has needs, hopes and dreams of their own, but places yours first.
Learn not just to be tough, resilient and calm, but to be grateful, gentle, and kind.
Especially when you can’t stand how close traffic is to the shoulder and you’d kill for a cold water and a place to lie down.
Show Compassion to Those Who Are Critical
During my transcontinental run, several people close to me commented that the time I took away from important things was an indication of how I consistently placed my own needs above those of others.
That criticism is not without merit. At some level, I had set ordinary life aside to take time off and do this Big Run. I doubled down on training. Leslie took on my share of the work we both did for a living, and she planned and prepped for crewing the run. I had skipped out on a number of family get-togethers. It was without a doubt most unpleasant to be on the receiving end of the inevitable criticism.
I didn’t like it…at all. But it did make me pause and think: about where the criticism had originated, why it was being delivered at that point in time, and what I could do about it that would be constructive and not hurtful. For that, I’m grateful. It was a chance to grow.
To accept criticism as a gut-punch just shows people how you can be hurt. To return the punch shows them the lengths you are willing to go to to hurt others. Neither is in your best interest.
If people criticize you out of kindness, do not reward them with anger; and if they criticize you out of anger, reward them with kindness.
It is probably the toughest thing you will have to do on your Big Run, but it is worth it.