The Worst Race Report You've Ever Read
Allow me to introduce you to our friend Fred before I tell you about the Zion 100k.
The mind is like a computer. It runs programs.
Most of the software has been poorly written.
It is written in the language of fear.
Let’s assume this rockin’ 70s software engineer and Buddhist spiritualist was onto something. What if his simile has truth: our young minds are hardwired by experience, and our self-awareness of that conditioning increases significantly as we mature (I added the second part).
The other day I was standing in a winding line at a store wondering what sorts of things each person carries each around in their skulls: chronic illness, worry for a child, distrust, inadequacy, anger, debt, secrecy, dysmorphia - the list could go on forever. We have good programs written into us, too, but the negative ones are controlling and invasive. They can operate without recognition, although the proof of their existence is found in their inappropriate manifestations. Unresolved anger that fires at innocents, shame that leads to lousy low self-esteem decisions, fear that takes the shape of control.
Theory: as we grow up, we are molded by the culture of our families, our faith, our first relationships, punishment and reward, cities and friendships and whatever other cards the Dealer gave us. We subconsciously write programming around these events to help us understand and cope with them. Our subconscious is very imperfect.
For example, as an alcoholic I have a lot of internal programming around existential loneliness. Mainly, about my inability to withstand it. At one point, I had an intangible belief that being alone was tantamount to being abandoned, and when that disk was inserted into the hard drive, a bender typically commenced. I’d cover a kitchen table in (mostly) bad poetry about broken things and empty more than one bottle looking for a different feeling. The whiskey became the antidote to another weekend home alone. It’s easy to justify this conditioning because it feels true - it’s based on experience. No one wants to be neglected, and no one wants to stand in the dark, misunderstood in the universe. Our short spark of life is irrelevant enough without feeling invisible and unwanted, too.
When I tried to stop drinking (in secret, more than a year before I was able to stop drinking) I was rattled deeply to discover that I couldn’t. I’ve spent more mornings crying, driving to work berating myself, hiding in the corner of some AA meeting I didn’t understand, researching rehabs in Florida, swearing up and down on the last time. I couldn’t tell others because I was following my programming: your problems are your own. You got yourself here, you get yourself out. My personal least favorite: Do better. Be better.
I had emotional conditioning compelling me to drink that I didn’t know existed. I do not mean “my childhood made me drink” or anything so obtuse. Humans are complicated and nuanced and messy. I was unable to quit via earnest promise because there were so many other mechanisms pushing me to blackout and escape negative feelings that were powerfully unnoticed.
Once I started to turn the lights on and recognize the conditioning, the decisions to stop drinking became possible (not one decision, ten thousand of them). Capability is an important word. I was powerless (that’s the word alcoholics use) without acknowledging or understanding that dynamic. I had to do more than just break up my codependent relationship with the buzz. Control is wily.
I hope you’re already thinking about your own programming - I shared this snapshot of my self-work in the last half decade to get you thinking about yours. Start at the assumptions of your youth: formative messaging comes from how we are taught to grow up and who to be.
Let’s go one layer further: we are also programmed generationally. To over-generalize: we are the Me Generation, full of narcissism and competitive pressure. Everyone's a startup and everyone's important. Our parents didn’t talk about things like identity, anxiety, gender, or feelings growing up. They were busy and we were latchkey kids. We may have over-compensated for our dismissive childhoods.
Current culture prioritizes boundaries, with full permission to excuse ourselves or banish others swiftly if they violate them. We have a sensitive radar for abuses, offenses, or dissension about our personal beliefs. Our feelings are valuable and deserve room to exist. We desire to be seen and heard, and we expect you to respect and believe us (or act like it) without questioning us (unless it is in the cowardly comments section).
To challenge how we feel is to challenge who we are.
To a degree, these tenets deserve praise. I was in a position as a child where I wasn’t entitled emotionally to be allowed to leave a situation. This is why I learned to dissociate from my body and ran away. Being able to leave, disconnect, or set a boundary would have prevented a lot of severe trauma. My feelings should have mattered, at least to someone. I didn't know what it looked like to defend my own reality quietly. The pendulum swung too far.
The thing I learned from that, though, is that it’s not all life-and-death. It’s not win-lose, not even after losing a thousand times in a row. What you think or feel that you can tolerate is probably not the truth, not even the days you are broken on your knees. For better or worse, the soul can withstand more than we allow. More than we are comfortable with. We are not so fragile that any trauma has the power to re-victimize, re-traumatize, and stunt us. We are so afraid of experiencing those hard things that we shut down. We refuse curiosity and claim violation instead. Perhaps we drew the boundary a little too soon.
Your belief in your own self-efficacy vs. learned helplessness will change the amount of potential in your life, of that I'm convinced.
I know we are all very concerned with the ten dollars in our checking accounts that we watch from our MacBooks and we obsess over living in a van so we can be more adventurous, but that’s not the grit of living. I’m sorry to sound judgmental, but I have seen this over and over and, worse, I have done this over and over: life is deep and full of bold colors and abstractly saturated with reality. To forget what is meaningful and to busy yourself with commodity or construct so you don’t have to feel pain is to avoid living.
Pain holds a secret, and it is powerful. That is the moment of decision: will we grow, or will we run? (Or drink, in my case.) Our collective programming tells us things like I don’t need to be uncomfortable. I don't want to. I should not experience negative emotion. Pain is the same as unhealthiness. You can hear and see this thinking in social posts of mantras and manifestations and affirmations.
Ok, now we are primed to talk about the irony: in ultrarunning, you can no longer run away.
Last weekend I won second female at the Zion 100k, a race with 250 starters. At mile 45, things got hard.
I underestimated it rather stupidly; last year I ran four 100-milers and a 240-miler, and nothing really goes wrong until 70+ miles in. Your blisters aren't soaking your shoes in blood, you aren't sleep walking, your nausea typically isn't sending your stomach contents flying, and it doesn't even hurt to pee yet. I thought a 63 mile race would be fun and hard and skip all the really bad stuff. I naively forgot to factor in that I'd be running those 63 miles faster than I run a 100-miler. The rule in ultrarunning: the faster you push, the harder it is. You think the front runners are naturally gifted and it's easy for them? Nice justification for your pace.
The race: a gravel road links four loops. Three are bumpy slick rock mountain bike mesas and one is this middle-finger-to-god loop through hell at the bottom of the desert that's like 25 miles long or something. In my mind, all I had to do was count down the loops.
Twenty miles from the end, things started to shake apart. The hellish loop had been predictably hot. By the time you climb up to the top of the mesa again, your legs are toast but you still have a marathon left. I shuffled down the road with two loops to finish, and in a hurry everything seemed meaningless.
I've already seen this road. Already know what the loops look like. To be fair, they really are beautiful; big white slick rock whales you run and jump over with a backdrop of red snowy mountains lining the horizon and purple orange desert in between. Don't need to prove myself. Don't need to impress anyone. Don't understand what is compelling me forward on these stiff legs and tired lungs.
There was a chartreuse shirt a minute or two in front of me on the road, so I chased it to make a game. I was annoyed at how steady this dude was, often nearly pulling away from me, but I held on like a fish on the line. Miles later I finally reeled him in."Do you want company?" I asked. We were both exhausted and running too fast to chat coherently, but we managed some kind of conversation even though we both had to yell "What?" an awful lot since both of our voices were tired. It was comforting to have a friend. We found some things to laugh about, and there's something powerful about having someone share the weight of the task.
I had a moment of happy-sad when we finished the third loop and got back to the road (sometimes feelings swim in your eyes that are hard to pinpoint, at least for me. Nothing is wrong, I knew we had one shorter loop left, I wasn't crying; the best word would probably be overwhelming. I was confident to have the finish in sight but also very tired). I still wanted to be done. My body hurt and was sapped from the unrelenting sun. My mind was burnt from tolerating discomfort. You yearn for the end sometimes in an ultra.
This is the moment we are here for.
This is the moment we want to end.
As a coach, this is the ugly moment I drive my clients toward. I care a lot about things like splits and gain and endurance, but the most meaningful messages I get are the ones that speak to personal growth. I didn't think I had it in me. I didn't want to keep going. I was so tired. My legs hurt so much. I wanted to quit.
This is the moment where we bring the pendulum back to neutral. It's not about evading trauma or blowing up your thoughts to disproportionately invade your reality. It's also not about torture and self-flagellation. The moment of healthy, productive, supported fear and pain is where we ask ourselves the most important question.
No one teaches you this growing up, but at the end of the day only you determine what you can tolerate.
This is why running an ultra is so fascinating. You feel out and find out your own limits. Then (and this is the best part) you face a decision. You are equipped with the tools and knowledge to push those boundaries further - but the choice to actually do it, to hang on for hours or days longer, is really fucking hard. Probably no one really cares what you decide in that moment. Probably no one is even watching you. It's just you and the universe. You and the Dealer.
That moment is the crucible that you sought out. Those are the feelings that bring me back to hard places - places where I've been powerless and crumbled before. Trust me on this, the long run will strip away all of your bullshit.
My watch turned over to mile 55, 56, 60. At mile 63 I still had two more miles to go (I got lost in the slick rock and added a bit) and that's discouraging too, but ultras are like that. It's ok. You get really good at acceptance when you run big trails. I stayed the course because I knew that I could. I can't respect myself for quitting the game I wanted to play when it brought me to the place I wanted to go.
There was a time that I would have doubted myself. There might have been a time where it hurt too much mentally to go into those dark places. Too much is a dangerous couple of words. Perhaps ultras, for me at least, are no more than an exercise in affect regulation and honesty in a beautiful landscape.
Don't just do it for the mug or the buckle, do it for the reward.