Fill Me Up

While training in Europe for last year’s UTMB, something pretty remarkable happened. I bonked. Energetic bonking is an occasional part of distance running, and so I wouldn’t normally consider such a thing special. But not this bonk. This one was in the morning. I had just eaten breakfast, and I was only about five or 10 minutes into my run. And oh yeah, I was running downhill. Crazy, right? You would think it nearly impossible to bonk under such conditions, and yet, there I was, plodding downhill, tingly hands and all, in desperate need of calories.

Fortunately, there were a few restaurants and shops at the bottom of the descent. In an attempt to dig myself out of this hole, I purchased a bottle of coke and downed it in minutes. I’m pretty sure it was a full liter. Scary, I know. The crazy thing was that this alone didn’t do the trick. It took a rest by a creek and a second round of caloric intake to refill the hole I was in.

Once out of my depleted state, I returned to humming right along. I went from struggling to run downhill to powering up climbs in a short period of time. It was as if I had traded my worn out body in for a new one. How can such a strong, capable body become so weak that quickly? And how does strength return so fast again? As odd as it seems, the answer is simple: cars require fuel. If the gas tank is empty, it doesn’t matter how many horses are under the hood, the car isn’t going anywhere. And we all know that the solution is equally easy: add fuel to the tank and the engine purrs again.

We all understand what is needed to keep the car going, and yet we mess it up. Sometimes we forget the rules, while other times we get overly confident. The low-fuel light is on and yet we continue driving, forgetting to check the gas gauge or eager to see how many miles we can drive on our last gallon of gas. Other times we know that what we’re doing isn’t smart or healthy, but we feel as though we don’t have a choice. Our day is so busy that we don’t have time to stop at the gas station. Overloaded schedules, imbalanced lifestyles, and illogical training plans lead us to burning the candle at both ends. For a while it may work. Our strong will and determination allow us to cheat the system. It may even feel good. I did this for a while in college, getting little to no sleep as I simultaneously slaved away at school, ran grueling workouts at track practice, and busted out some of my best races ever at meets. It was fun, but it was also exhausting–and unsustainable.

At the surface, it might seem like I’m about to suggest that we all endeavor to find balance in life and running, to mete out the fuel in our proverbial tanks with intention. That, however, is not what I am after. Sure, if you can find a way to have balance in your life, do it. But sometimes, or for periods of time, life just gets crazy and we have to buckle down and push through some chaos. I think this is just part of being human, and I also think this ability to swing under pressure is an admirable trait. If you can get to the starting line healthy and fit despite distractions and pressures, that’s pretty impressive.

What I am concerned with here is what happens after all of that persevering. You make the grade, nail the sales pitch, and get the PR. You ran the car at high efficiency, and got more miles out of the same fuel tank than usual. This journey likely emptied our tank, like my bonk that morning. The hole that I found myself in probably wasn’t the result of one inadequate breakfast. A lot of digging spread out over many days (or weeks, or months) is likely why it happened.

So, dig if and when you need. Digging is sometimes good. It gets us places and teaches us things. It conditions and challenges us. But after you dig there is always a hole to refill. We can fill the holes with food, water, and rest. We can also fill our holes with friends, family, good conversations, and laughter.

Time spent with good people is something that helps refill me when I feel empty. It has a way of filling my soul and making me smile on the inside. We recently hired a few new caretakers at Barr Camp in Colorado, where I live and work, and the dynamic has been great. One of our new guys, Mike, is real goofball, and having him around is medicine for my soul. I am working through some injuries right now, and that’s tough, but some days Mike gets me laughing so hard that I feel like I’m healing from the inside out. The holes are refilling.

Life throws a lot at us, and sometimes we throw a lot at ourselves. We set big goals and work hard to achieve them. If you are doing something worthwhile, you are pretty much bound to dig yourself into a few holes along the way. Just be sure to fill them back up. And if they are too big to fill on your own, go find yourself a Mike, because laughing until you can hardly breathe has a way of shoveling the dirt back in.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When have you either needed or chose to overfill your life for a period of time, like during school, or after a new baby, or for an important work project? Can you share the circumstances of why and how you went about these periods of time?
  • And, what happened during the recovery period afterward? To use Zach’s analogy, what tools did you use to refill the hole you dug?

Zach Miller literally digging a hole. All photos courtesy of Zach Miller.

Spending time with friends at Barr Camp is helping Zach recover from injury.

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 7 comments

  1. Dave

    Zach’s column is always a highlight. I often share his work with my high school students. Clearly such an intelligent and thoughtful guy.

  2. Trevor

    Recently i admitted to myself I was burned out from too much running and not enough recovery time. Overtraining isn’t quite the word ; I could literally feel the cortisol at times coursing through me and making me way more stressed out than I needed to be. So I decided to zero out close to two weeks with no running and instead have been climbing/cycling, trying to catch up on reading.

  3. P

    Thank you Zach, I needed this right now. Tapering for my first 100 miler and been having a crazy work schedule while training more than ever. Luckily I love to eat and have made sure to stay on top of my nutrition, but this article provided me with the understanding that now its time to fuel also with good conversations in the next two weeks.

  4. MW

    An article for the masses. Many of us who visit irunfar have the life described by Zach. We work (especially those stay at home parents– You the real MVP), run, cross-train, and juggle the intricacies of life. I recently accepted a new job that introduces change at an uncomfortable amount. I may be in my upper 20’s, but when it comes to change I may as well be 90. It’s stressful. However, I have no formal running training planned until mid June. Currently I run at ease without focus to time, HR, etc. The next few weeks entail keeping that base mileage at an acceptable level while minimizing stress. It may not be a hard reset, but a reset in running mentality to keep that balance.

  5. Jelena

    Than you Zach for the reminder to refill the holes after digging too deep. The sooner the better! I can relate so much to what I read in this column and comments from other runners too. I have had a difficult period of time this winter and spring, neglecting proper nutrition and sleep. Recovering slowly now. Nevertheless, things are getting better. Going to run CCC UTMB in the end of summer.

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