Giving And Taking

Earlier this month, my head was all out of sorts. There were things on my mind that I just kept thinking about. Things I seemed unable to straighten out. One day, as I drove from Denver to Colorado Springs, Colorado, I wrestled with my thoughts, prayed out loud (perhaps very loud), and banged on my steering wheel. There was a lot that was said and felt during that drive. By the end of it, things still weren’t sorted out, but I parked my truck at the base of Pikes Peak, crammed some gear into my pack, and headed up the mountain.

Typically, I would just hop on the Barr Trail and take the 6.5 miles of trail to my home in the woods at Barr Camp. But on this particular day, I headed straight for the Manitou Incline. Gaining approximately 2,000 feet of elevation in a roughly one mile via a straight-shot staircase, the ‘incline’ is anything but easy. Leaning into the grade that day, I could certainly feel the weight of my pack. And yet, I also felt smooth, strong, and dare I say, ‘good.’ As I climbed higher, I felt motivated by the things reeling in my head. Maybe I couldn’t fix them, make sense of them, or get rid of them, but I could give a bit more of myself in opposition to that which I could not erase.

For some, this may conjure up an image of extreme aggression. They might picture me with a scowl on my face and a set of clenched fists. But in reality, it was a much more positive thing. It was an act of giving. Sure, there wasn’t any real tangible or concrete result, but in my heart it was there. It was a way for me to express that I wanted things to be better or different or okay.

The giving part was inspired by something I had listened to earlier in the month by author Darren Hardy. In this short bit of daily inspiration, Darren addressed the topic of give and take, asking his listeners if they identified as givers or takers. The question made me stop and think. As we go through life, are we giving to others or mostly just taking? Thinking about this can be a bit humbling. Most of us probably like to think that we do a lot of giving, and many of us likely do. But if we sit down and look things over, we’re also likely to find that we do a lot of taking, sometimes a lot more. Now, I don’t bring this up to say that people should rid their lives of all forms of taking. No. If everyone were to do that, there wouldn’t be anyone left to do the taking, just a whole lot of givers giving to, well, I don’t know who.

Skipping back to my day on the incline and the wrestling match going on inside my head, I thought about give and take. I thought about running. How in training I give so much of myself. All of the hours I spend on the mountain, the discomfort I experience in workouts, the commitment and dedication. It’s an awful lot of giving. Sometimes the giving results in the takeaway of a PR, a victory, or a course record. Other times things fall apart. And yet, for some reason I’m always willing to do the giving. My willingness to give in training is not dependent on the promise of a positive race day. In other areas of life, however, I am cautious to give. But why is this? How can I find it so easy to give in hard interval workouts, long runs, steep climbs, and big races, but feel so cautious when it comes to other things?

I think the giving in running is easy for two reasons. The first reason is that I enjoy the process, meaning that I get a positive takeaway even if race day isn’t so hot. The second reason is that most of the time I feel like a less-than-favorable race result isn’t really devastating to anyone else. Sure, I can get really bummed about a bad race, but I doubt that others are losing too much sleep over it. I don’t feel like I have harmed anyone by falling short of my goals. That I can take.

Other things in life are much more dynamic. They involve people and rules and laws and all sorts of things that we just can’t fully control. From cancer to natural disasters to death coming too soon, these things can be hard to handle and even harder to make sense of. And yet they require our all. They want not a part of our attention, love, and care, but all of it. And they don’t promise that the result or the journey will be very fun. Some days they feel like interval workouts with no rest, tempo runs with no end, and bitter-cold long runs that leave you with frozen everythings and a bad case of the ‘screamin’ barfies.’ And yet this is life. Amidst all of the fun and carefree moments, there are also a lot of really tough ones.

So, what do we do with these tough moments? Do we run from them, pretending they no longer exist? As tempting as that may be, I don’t think it’s the solution. Sure, we may run, but not from the problems. Instead, we should run into them with helping hands, through them with brave hearts, and on from them with lessons learned and memories clutched. In other words, we must learn to give of ourselves even when the takeaways may seem bleak, questionable, or non-existent.

It’s like a book I have been reading this winter. It’s called Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace, and for months I’ve not been sure what it’s about. With less than 50 pages left, I may be catching on–maybe. My grip started to come as the author, Michael Perry, kept discussing moments of loss. The first major instance was in regard to his brother, “I can see into the room where my brother returned to bed alone after losing his wife of seven weeks in a car accident to which he was the first responder. I can also see the spot over near the chimney where he used to sit in the recliner after a long day of fieldwork or logging and cradle the son he had with his second wife only to lose the boy in a drowning. My saudade is an indulgence; for my brother and his wife it is a chilled steel blade to the heart. In the corner by the phone jack there is a pile of straw and kindling. Beside it lies a charged fire hose, the nozzle hissing with pent-up pressure. It is time to burn this house.”

A short while later in the book, he discusses another moment of loss. This time it is the death of a family pet and his attempt to help his daughter cope. In a breakthrough moment, his daughter expresses how a story told by their elderly neighbor Tom helped her, “It… it kind of helped me understand how you can be sad but also that these things happen. And you can still tell the stories and have good memories, but you have to go on to the next thing.”

That bit right there brought some relief to what’s been reeling in my mind. Bad things happen and then life goes on. It sounds so simple. Sometimes it is. Other times it isn’t. But hard or easy, move on we must. We can’t change the past, but we can move forward. We can give of our time, our gifts, and our energies in an attempt to make the most of the here and now. This doesn’t mean that we forget what happened; it simply means that we find a way to keep going.

Acknowledging this is one thing. Putting it into action is another. I’m a person who believes in grace, forgiveness, and second chances. Those three things can go a long way. But here is where I get hung up: I get stuck on the fact that you can’t erase or alter the past. Some of my friends have been through some insanely awful things. As much as I would like to see them make it through and as much as some of them have in some way, I struggle with the fact that the past will always be there. No matter how many silver linings we find, we can’t change what’s happened. That’s tough. Some might say paralyzing.

But that’s it! That’s what I realized on my run tonight while scrambling off the side of Mary’s Mountain in the dark. I realized that our response to hard things can be like those times when your body goes into panic mode and starts to lock up. It doesn’t happen to me all the time, but every now and then when I am navigating technical terrain (think cliffs, rock scrambles, and sketchy ridgelines), my body starts to panic. In a matter of seconds it can go from feeling calm and collected to extremely uneasy. Mentally, I sense fear and panic. Physically, I feel like a fainting goat on the verge of locking up. (Those goats must be so stressed!) And yet, I know that if I allow the fear to rule me, I won’t get anywhere. I’ll be stuck up on the side of that rock forever (or at least until I get too tired and fall off). So, I do what I have to. I fight off the panic, focus on my next move, and clear the obstacle.

In life, this is what’s hard. It’s hard to focus on the next move, to overcome the panic, to wake up day after day and reach for the next hold. And yet, unless we wish to stay frozen on the ridgeline, reaching for that next hold is exactly what we must do. It’s like that day on the incline. My head was anything but clear when I got on those stairs, but each step was a way to move on. Sure, it didn’t fix everything, but it provided a release, and now, thanks to the book Visiting Tom and my off-trail adventures, it also serves as a reminder that we need to keep moving. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t (and cannot) erase the past. We can’t stop bad things from happening. Hard moments will always be part of life. Some of those moments will feel like more than we can handle. But no matter how hard, we can’t wallow. We can’t stop. We can’t freeze. We have to keep moving. We have to keep living. We have to keep giving and sometimes taking–because we all need some help now and then.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you ever have mental anguish over the perpetual give-and-take aspects of life? How do you come to peace with this?
  • Taking Zach’s thoughts a bit further, do you ever use the strength you find through running to get through some of the rougher parts of life? Do you see any parallels in how you cope with the hardest parts of both life and running?
Pikes Peak and Marys Mountain

Pikes Peak with Mary’s Mountain in the foreground. All photos: Zach Miller

Zach Miller on Palsgrove Mountain

Zach on Palsgrove Mountain.

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 17 comments

  1. Rob Sargeant

    So true. The perseverance that ultra running has taught me over the past few years has helped me to press on in other aspects of life especially when things don’t go as planned and are more of a challenge.

  2. Debbie Ivins

    What a meaty article thanks Zach. I am going to have to read it a few times to let all the lessons sink in. I started running to help me overcome personal pain and eventually over the years have found that ultra running (especially on trails) is my best fit. I love the struggle. I love using the inner strength I have found in overcoming struggles in life and channeling it into my running every time I hit the wall or feel I can’t take another step. You can’t have a pity party and let yourself get bitter. You have to rise above it and be the better person and think how you have triumphed in the past and know you can do it again. Often having others encourage you and remind you, you’ve got what it takes, helps a lot. But you also have to learn to do it alone and want it badly enough…to finish what you start and embrace every run and every life experience to the full.

  3. Matt A.

    We all have anxieties, insecurities, and worry about things because those things are important to us and really do matter in some way. Don’t see your anxiety as a flaw. It may be an important part of your character that should be celebrated. Just like grieving is sometimes an important part of loving. Keep up your good work Zach! Me and my family love so much about you.

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