Lessons From the Long Trail

AJWs TaproomThe commentary which followed last week’s column on Grit was thought-provoking and inspiring. In particular, I was intrigued by the trajectory of the conversation. It seemed to me that two trends emerged:  one, commenters noted a certain upper/middle class bias in the sport and the suggestion was made that the presence of leisure time makes this a sport for those with means and two, commenters observed that the obstacles faced in ultrarunning pale in comparison to the obstacles faced in life. While I tend to agree with both of these sentiments, I would like to re-direct the conversation back toward what I intended as the point of the column.

From my point of view, I was hoping to highlight the research on Grit as a way to suggest that ultrarunning can teach us about life and, perhaps, how to live. Furthermore, I meant to suggest that, while certain innate abilities and tendencies are fundamental to success in ultrarunning, there are others, like Grit, that can be learned and nurtured through experience. Additionally, in my time in the sport, I have come to realize that I have personally learned much about myself and how to live through my involvement in ultrarunning and that while it may be an optional, leisure activity for me, the lessons I have learned have allowed me to become a better, more complete person. What follows are five such “lessons from the long trail:”

  1. Focus and Discipline – Success in ultras depends on focused and disciplined training. Most people know this, of course, but regardless of innate ability there is no substitute for “doing the work.” So it goes in life, as well. While there are those select few who due to circumstance, temperament, or luck are able to breeze through life unencumbered by actually having to do something, most of us will not succeed without doing what it takes to get the job done. Focusing on the task at hand and being disciplined enough to follow through on that task, however difficult, makes us all a little bit better. Think about this the next time you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock.
  2. Presence in the Moment – While it is never easy, in my experience, mourning the loss of a loved one, friend or colleague often impels us to think and talk about “living life in the moment” or “living each day as if it was your last.” While some of these thoughts can be hyperbolic, perhaps the great American writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau said it best in Walden,  “I went to the woods because I wished to live life deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” For me, and I know for any others, running long distances brings us into the moment in ways that few other activities do. In the midst of an ever-changing and fast evolving world, there is something quite profound about living deliberately. Running through the woods on a hot summer day certainly is one poignant way to do just that.
  3. Managing Expectations – Life is always throwing us curveballs! Just when we think we’ve got things figured out, right at the moment we think we have life under control at home, at work, on the trail, something comes along and knocks us off our game. It’s inevitable. What’s not inevitable is how we react to these circumstances. Hence, this third lesson, managing expectations. I cannot think of one 100-mile race that I have run where I have not, at some point, taken stock of my situation and re-adjusted my expectations. Even in the midst of the best race of my life (2005 Western States), I made adjustments down the stretch based on external factors that were completely out of my control. Running long ultras gives us a living laboratory for expectations management. And, while work in that lab may not stop the curveballs from coming our way, it will undoubtedly help us face up to them with confidence and hope.
  4. Learning from Failure – One outdoor adventurist who has been inspiring to me over the years is blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer. Erik and I taught classes together in Arizona in the mid-90’s before parting ways. Over the past 12 years, Erik has inspired millions with his exploits in the mountains. In particular, five years ago, Erik became the first blind man to stand atop Mt. Everest. Erik speaks often about something he calls the “adversity advantage.” In fact, he strongly believes that his blindness gives him strength he would not have if he could see. Certainly, after going blind at the age of 13, Erik experienced a series of failures and disappointments. Rather than wallowing in despair, Erik turned those failures into successes. So it is for those of us who run. In my experience, there is no substitute for failure and disappointment when it comes to education, growth, and personal development. Take Matt Carpenter’s experience at the 2004 Leadville 100. After that race, Matt could have easily folded up his tent and returned to Pikes Peak where he has dominated for the better part of 20 years. Instead, he took his lumps, put his head down, and came back in 2005 to establish a standard on that course that is truly extraordinary. Next time failure and disappointment rear their heads for you, think about Erik and Matt.
  5. Patience – Whether it is dealing with an injury, allowing the training volume to build on itself, or biding one’s time in the heat of a 100-miler, perhaps the greatest lesson learned in ultrarunning is patience. These days, of course, being patient is a dying art as we are increasingly called upon to behave and react with a “sense of urgency” to even the slightest evolutionary change. And yet, looking around, it appears to me that the patient ones seem to consistently survive and thrive. Keeping an eye on the Big Picture, understanding and accepting your role and position in the order of things, and allowing the passage of time to provide meaning and purpose in life are all valuable lessons learned on the trail that can point us out to the horizon and open our eyes to the “long view.” In the midst of all of today’s speed, let’s not forget that.

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Long Trail AleThis week’s beer comes from the Green Mountains of Vermont. Long Trail is one of the more established craft brewers in the country and while their beer is widely available, to me it tastes best from the tap in their original brewery in Vermont. Next time you’re up in the Northeast Kingdom, be sure to stop by and savor their smooth drinking, old school, flagship beer, Long Trail Ale.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What lessons have you learned from ultrarunning that you apply in other areas of your life?
  • What do you think of the lessons AJW has shared above?

[We were unable to identify the photographer of the thumbnail of Matt Carpenter running Leadville 100 that we used as the homepage/archive thumbnail. Please let us know if you can identify the photographer and we’ll gladly add credit.]

There are 24 comments

  1. Mark

    Couldn't agree more on each of those 5 lessons. In stepping up from marathons to ultras roughly 5 years ago. patience was the one that slapped me down most often before I finally "got it". I also believe that it's the one that separates ultrarunning from marathons.

    Running a marathon well requires one to redline it for 26 miles, whereas in a successful 100 miler, one has to learn to slow down and know that the finish line will come if you are patient.

    Awesome post, Andy!

  2. Curt Krieger

    Really organized way to state what I've come to appreciate about running trails. Nicely done AJW.

    For too long I participated in the sport more like Long Trail's "Hibernator" but now approach it like Flying Dog"s "Raging Bitch"

    Happy trails.

  3. OOJ

    Great 5. My addition:

    6.) Believing [and learning] "The Impossible" to be possible.

    There are few other sports that can routinely teach that more frequently than ultra running. How many 35-point comebacks are there in the NFL playoffs (one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Comeback_%28Amer…. But the amount of "comebacks" in a hundred mile can be multiple – for a single runner!

    An ultra, while perhaps feeling like a lifetime, can be a "life" in a microcosm: ups and downs, setbacks, surprises. AJW's 1-5 are crucial, but so is believing the impossibility to be possible.

    Two notable stories from WS:

    A.) Geoff Roes' comeback in '10: would he ever thought, as he climbed Bath Road, that he'd even see Tony and Killian again? He must've…at least a little bit.

    B.) Gordy's '74 experience, retold in "Unbreakable":

    "Can I make it to Auburn? No way! How 'bout Michigan Bluff…with those Canyons…? What CAN I do? Well, I can take one more step…"

    To accept the impossible to MAYBE be possible can open incredible doors, in ultras and life.

    1. Jeff Faulkner

      This. AJW and OOJ, thanks for getting me thinking on my way out the door to work. Now I have excellent fodder for rumination all day long.

    1. AJW

      Why are you always hanging out in Vegas?

      And, have you made the pilgrimage up to the Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa to sample Pliny the Younger? It goes on tap tomorrow for a limited release of two weeks. Evidently, considered by some to be America's finest beer.

  4. Marcus

    In my case, I've always been a pretty self-confident person and successful in my work. I have tended to avoid things, however, that I thought I couldn't do well at… one of them is running. I did decide to take up running two years ago to lose weight I put on after getting married. I entered a 10K… and really didn't think it was possible for me to run any farther than that. 10K went to a half marathon, then a marathon. Then I decided to really challenge myself. Last year I ran two 50Ks, now this year it's 3 50 milers and the Angeles Crest 100. So, I guess for me, even as a pretty self-confident person, ultrarunning has provided me with challenges in life that I can now try to focus on beating. I am not so self-confident to think I will ever be competitive… I am securely in the middle of the pack and regardless of training I am certain it will stay that way, but most of us are mid- or back-of-the-packers and know that going in. It is really all about challenging ourselves, the friends you make on the trail (and I've made a few now), and enjoying some time in the great outdoors.

  5. Mike

    Hey, great article, as always. I couldn't agree more, particularly the piece on patience. More and more these days folks are looking for thrills with more immediacy, ie video games/electronics and the like. Trail running provides me with more joy than I could put into words, but it takes getting out the door day after day and working hard, pushing my body to its physical and mental limits, and when my mind and body respond I end up with a big dumb grin on my face and nice sore muscles (the good sore) and I can't ask any more from life than what a few hours out in the mountains/foothills provides me.

    Also,not to knit pick, but I lived in VT for several years and the Long Trail Brewery (tasty brews) is located in Bridgewater Corners, near Killington, more than an hour south of the region of the state known as the Northeast Kingdom, though if you are in the state I recommend visiting both areas, they're beautiful :)

  6. Jason Bryant

    AJW, great post. I've often thought similar things, but not so eloquent with words. I think I'll post this for my high school kids.

    You left off one lesson from the trail. Being strange, or let's say unique. Though I don't really know you, I've met you once I believe. You seem strange, but I'll say it's a good thing. Plus it can help you get through life.

    Thanks again for the post,

    jb

  7. Josh White

    AJW-

    Addressing only your beer of the week:

    Come to Vermont and let me show you good beer! I live around half an hour from the Long Trail brewery and will admit that Long Trail is good, but off the top of my head is maybe the 5th or 6th best brewery around here!

    Others more worthy of your attention in no particular order:

    The Alchemist

    Magic Hat

    Trout River

    Fiddlehead

    Wolaver's

    Seriously. If run something like the VT 100, let me know. I'll hook you up with a 4-pack of Heady Topper from The Alchemist. It'll rock your world.

    Josh

    1. AJW

      Josh, thanks. I have run VT100 four times and hope to get back there in the next couple years. My favorite Vt beer is Otter Creek in Middlebury. I have tried a few of those others, as well so thanks for the tips.

  8. Lisa

    Andy,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I have always found people more interesting if they have had to work for their successes in life. It's the journey I want to hear about. I often suffer from wanting everything "right now" rather than later. And when I read about people like Erik who strive to live their lives as fully as possible I am at once filled with inspiration and inner disgust.

    I certainly don't want to lead a mediocre life and I think that's why I'm fascinated with the drive of ultra runners. I am a beginning trail runner but I intend to keep going for as long as I can. It has already given me so much in terms of my outlook on life in general.

    Thanks for your post!

    Lisa

  9. Ben Nephew

    One lesson that you didn't cover that has been the most ultra specific for me is preparation and organization. While you have to be prepared and organized in all forms of runnering, it's much more of a factor in ultras, and I don't even do 100's. Coming from racing shorter distances where race outcomes are strongly correlated with fitness, it is frustrating to have issues like clothing, fueling and salt intake be major factors. I remember hearing stories of Divison I college runners that would stay up all night, take a nap on the bench in the locker room for 2 hours, and then destroy everyone in a major 5k. That type of thing is much less likely in an ultra. We've all seen guys take off at the start carrying nothing. While I enjoy being successful at being prepared and organized for an ultra, I sometimes miss the simplicity of getting up, grabbing my race shoes and jumping in the car to head to a trail race. With runners I know who have moved up in distance, the organization necessary to have a great race is a common challenge.

    On the other hand, the patience I have learned from running has a much stronger base in road running than ultras. The experienced road racers, especially masters runners, in New England are incredibly patient in races and often spend the last mile of races passing people by the handfull. In comparison, I'll have what I consider a massive positive split in an ultra and move up through the field in the second half. Despite some great performances where patience was displayed, the most popular ultra race plan for runners up front seems to be to start hard and hold on as best you can. After having several ultra races of both variety, I find it fascintating how popular positives splits are. It's bad enough to go out too hard in a 10 miler. Doing that in an ultra brings the misery to another level.

  10. Dave Morrison

    Andy,

    Well said! I'm writing a book on "Human Resourcefulness" and you have summarized some of the points of my book with this simple article. As I read it, I stopped in the middle and made more notes in my journal for inclusion in the book, so "Thank You" for the stimulation. I'm particularly interested in teaching people "how to be more resourceful" and I know that having the mind set is a foundational piece of the pie. All of the 5 lessons you mentioned are some of the mind sets that not only help people run long distance, but also help them to be resourceful. There are other too! Being an ultra runner, I have realized how resourceful this intentional practice is. For example, when we run, we are meeting many of our personal needs at one time such as being healthy (Health is a human need), feeling free (Freedom is a human need), having fun (Fun is a human need), improving or feeling self worth (Self worth is a human need), on and on. Therefore, I'll submit that all long distance runners are pretty darn resourceful.

    I also liked Jason Bryant's comment about "being strange or unique". I love it when people tell me that I'm crazy. I take that as a compliment, and enjoy being different in the positive ways that ultra runners are perceived. We are crazy and unique and I'll add RESOURCEFUL to that list of adjectives. Thanks, Dave

  11. Alex

    Ultra running has really humbled me. I have become more productive and creative. It has inspired me to write again. I really like the adventure of it and my running has inspired friends who have never thought they could run start running and even some have started racing 5ks.

  12. gary aronhalt

    there's a part of a verse in the bible that i've been thinking about lately, in relation to running: "we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…" as i've been running through my own mid-life crisis, i'm finding my back towards hope…

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