In June I ran a 53k trail race with 6500 feet of climbing and rugged terrain on the south coast of Iceland and it turned out to be a fantastic experience!
What inspired me? How did I come up with a new game plan and stick to it in order to finally get to the start line of an imposing distance race? It took me 63 years, in a way, to figure this out for myself so I thought I’d pass on what I learned to help others pursue their own big goals.
For a bit of background, I went years during my running prime, where I was dogged by injury. I must have been doing things kinda wrong, right? Who knows, but I kept at my running when I could and got lucky here and there to get in a race and do fairly well. My last 50k, for instance, was the Chuckanut 50K when I was 50 and I ran a respectable 4:35 that year. Thinking I would work harder the next year, I instead went another 13 years before making another 50k start line.
So, in mid-February, running regularly, cross-training and avoiding injury for the last several years (finally), there I was, sitting in my “morning chair” reading the news when my sweet wife, Genevie, forwarded an intriguing email from our good friend Carol Frazey. She was planning to run a 53k trail race in Iceland.
Was there a lightning bolt? From Thor possibly? Maybe, because the flash of inspiration short circuited much of any mental calculation as I quickly blurted out to Genevie, “I want to do that!”. Not surprisingly, she enthusiastically agreed and the plan was cemented in moments after also realizing that we would celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary while traveling around the exotically beautiful island.
I had three and half months to get ready. So many miles though! Maybe I would not stress and just make a day of a nice long hike. My thoughts spinning, I knew I would train to do my best to run it hard and see what happens.
Having snatched a tantalizing idea from the ether to run in an unknown land of sagas and mystery- what had I learned or still need to change to make this journey? Well, a lot actually!
For one, I highly recommend inspiration to anyone, wherever you might find it. I suggest engaging with good sources, like friends, books, daydreaming and more, to encourage a spark. One of my favorite Stoic sayings is, “decide, begin, persist.” We have so many options in life and many distractions, that there is incredible power in simply deciding what to focus on fairly intently for a stretch of time. Inspiration seems derived from this energized directional beam of light, or focus. Maybe those of us with poor attention are all the more amazed when we stumble on inspiration!
As a quick aside, I’ve experienced a few pretty good sparks in my life and you know immediately, somehow, how right, true and beautiful this thing is going to be. It’s an electrifying feeling throughout the whole body telling you this will surely happen and it will be glorious. You may end up wrong, but there is no better feeling in the world than this moment and it’s worth reflecting on regularly to savor and somehow replicate someday if you are so fortunate…and I might add, intentional.
Inspirational to one person is not to another. It’s very personal. Why was this event inspirational to me?
- I had trained for and felt reasonably ready for the 2020 Chuckanut 50k. And then…Covid.
- I’m fortunate to feel contentment and peace in my life, but there is something about stepping (a lot) outside of a comfort zone and getting a little extreme now and then, do hard things, and to flirt with the edge of your envelope so to speak.
- I had finished 3 other 50k’s, but they were many years ago (last was 2009) and I had hoped to get at least one more in before I was too, you know…old.
- Traveling to an exotic, rugged, beautiful place we had never visited.
- Genevie and I could celebrate our 20th anniversary there.
- It was a stretch goal and a chance to focus my effort on something that felt thrilling and captivated my imagination.
- I’d been running and doing strength training regularly for months and years without toeing a line. Seemed like an exciting opportunity to bump it up, focus and give it another go.
- I had targeted and trained for races in the past that resulted in failure to even get to the start line. I had my excuses, including injuries, illness, insufficient training, distraction, “busyness”, poor planning, you name it. This was another shot at getting it right.
Though I like to think I’ve been fit for most of my life (an obvious exception was open heart surgery and its aftermath 3 years after that last 50k), I knew I had some work to do!
First, I had to figure what I would do differently this time in my preparation to avoid the many pitfalls of the past. In other words, try not to do the same things and expect better results.
Then, I made it a point to enjoy the process, or the path, if you will. To go so far as not thinking of “workouts” and instead thinking “I get to go out and play again today”. To be able to run is a special gift and a youthful feeling of vitality and joy. If you’ve ever been injured for long stretches, like I had, every run is one to appreciate.
Having “winged” most of my training in the past, I decided I would follow a plan. “If you genuinely care about the goal, you’ll focus on the system”, says James Clear. Krissy Moehl is a local legend, friend, and globally successful ultrarunner and I remembered that I owned her very well written, personable, yet detailed manual on running a “first” ultra. The 50k plan she wrote is for beginners. Previously I would have selected an “advanced” plan…and then incur another injury before long.
So, this time it finally occurred to me to try humility, do things differently, remember that I’m decades past 30, and that I don’t want to ruin this exciting opportunity by overreaching. If anything, a bit of under-reaching would be in order.
In addition, I would follow the plan to the letter, with only rare exceptions.
With the good fortune of staying illness and injury free, following the plan turned out to be more fun than expected and very motivating to check the assigned workouts off as the days, weeks, months went on.
I’ll admit readily, there were days where the plan called for something long or hard and it was cold rain outside. I could not get myself to call it “play” on those days, but I got into the habit of turning off my debating mind and to just get out the door – now!
I’ve got to say, learning to be ready physically and mentally for intense or long workouts shouldn’t have taken me 60 years. Normally, I was the guy who ran easy days hard and hard days only a little harder. Consequently, the hard days were not hard enough. Following the Krissy’s plan and running the hard days appropriately, I couldn’t wait for an easy, recovery pace, day. My lesson- be ready and excited to get after the hard days and then be ready and excited to rest, recover and refresh like a champion for the next bout.
Even then- I didn’t necessarily have what it took effort-wise, every single workout. That’s a given. I decided early on that consistency would overcome my periodic shortcomings.
Consistency sounds boring and easy in concept, but I found it can also help bring about the most exciting success when applied with patience over time, otherwise known as discipline. I might slip, but not much or for too long. I wanted compounding gains, one day building on the last incrementally.
As Zeno, a Stoic, said, “Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.” A day of positives won’t bring dramatic changes, but start stacking those days and the difference is significant and builds momentum for more.
I believe in taking advantage of positive feedback loops and how one good thing leads to another. To get a good run in requires having energy from good nutrition, hydration and quality sleep. Nutritive food and running leads to better sleep, for example. A related important concept is remembering that, “if we want something better out of our body (or mind) we need to put something better into it.” In addition, sleep and exercise regularity made it easier to be ready to go every day, while helping to eliminate mental negotiating before a workout.
Further positive routines included cold showers and meditation, that have helped to keep my dopamine level at a healthy place, thereby improving motivation. I start every new habit or routine in a way that seems easy. Establish the habit first, no matter how small or unimpressive, then build from there as desired. If I couldn’t maintain a routine, I knew to make it a bit easier in some way. I would remember that even small habits done consistently can bring profound results.
This time around, I actually thought about where I was weak, which muscles seemed to cramp up in a race, and which stability and mobility issues to be concerned about given this race.
As an example, I had sore/tight hamstrings off and on for years. Stretching and massage was often helpful to a degree, but adding single leg/both Romanian deadlifts to my routine seemed to put all that behind me- no pun intended.
I continued to incorporate core work most days and weight training for muscle balance, but recognized more than ever how this work was keeping me on the trails and recovering for the next day.
I had a big goal, but maintained low expectations. I tried not to expect a great run or noticeable improvement day to day. I would accept my performance, stay positive and give my best, knowing that piling on a good enough day, one after another would get me to the big goal. There was humility in the moment, but a building excitement for where I was headed.
We can accomplish bigger things when we find support from a spouse, friends or family. Genevie would cheer me on daily and it felt so good to have her support, knowing also that she was sacrificing (time together, etc.) along with me. It felt like a collaborative project. She made positive comments, showed interest in my plan and daily progress, and kept smiling even when I know she may have preferred that I was not running for hours yet again! Feeling the love was very helpful.
Success to me was getting to the start line healthy, happy and content with what I had accomplished to that point. I had enjoyed the journey (the plan and the process) and showed myself that with a patient, sustainable and somewhat wiser approach I could change the script and finally get to the start line of an event distance that had long been attractive but elusive.
For me, as well, I think it’s helpful to take the potential stress out of race day by acknowledging that the true start line was months ago and today is as much a celebration of the journey to this point as anything. Yes, it’s like test day, too, but the studying and work has been done and all that’s left is making the best effort possible on this day, given the patient investment and preparation in the months beforehand.
And, if you are wondering how my race turned out, it went pretty darn well. Yes, even a success. It took longer than expected at seven and a half hours, but I got to run a race in ICELAND! It was exotic and beautiful, with people from around the world, on terrain that is steaming and burbling with magma underground ready to renew the landscape and even move continents. I ran seeing panoramic views of the coast and the North Atlantic ocean, with waterfalls, steamy rivers, volcanic pinnacles, cliffs and gorges, while getting to know a fellow from Greece, several local Icelanders, Brits and more. I endured multiple leg cramps (despite my prep) that very much slowed me down, but still managed to be the second American finisher and second age group finisher, both by mere minutes.
Yes, it was a celebration indeed, and I was smiling all the way to the finish where my wonderful wife of now 20 years was waiting for me as she always does- with a hug and big smile of her own!
I hope you have found inspiration today. Happy Trails! Steve