Lunch-Pail Days

AJW's TaproomBrad Mitchell, one of my training partners back when I lived in Idaho, had a knack for labeling our training runs with thoughtful and always-accurate names. Long before Strava gave everyone the opportunity to label workouts, good old Brad was doing it. One of his regular labels was “Lunch Pail Day.”

In order to fully understand this label, you need to know that Brad is a proud blue-collar guy. By day, he works for the local highway department, plowing roads in the winter and moving earth in the summer. The rest of the time, he trains–and trains hard. For Brad, a lunch-pail day is one of those days you just have to get through. Once in a while at his job, he just needs to put his nose to the grindstone and move a pile of snow or a bunch of rocks. Occasionally in training, Brad knows we all have the same kind of day where we just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other in spite of an overwhelming desire to stop. Those are the lunch-pail days.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to jump into a local 50k at a state park about 12 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. The Swampstomper 50k is one of the more established events in this area and it typically kicks off the mid-south’s late winter/spring season. Held on the bluffs that run along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River, the Swampstomper is, more often than not, a muddy race. This year, it took mud to a whole new level.

Through the first half of winter, we have been inundated with nearly daily rains and in the week leading up to Swampstomper an additional two inches of rain fell. Then, as if on cue, the skies opened up about an hour before the race start and the deluge continued for the first four hours of the race. What resulted was a conflagration of mud and muck the likes of which I had only seen at the Bighorn Trail 100 Mile. To make matters worse, the race is a double out-and-back and also includes an accompanying 25k race so the number of feet stomping through the mud increased exponentially as the day wore on.

As I was stomping my way back from the turnaround on my first out-and-back about two hours into the race, I heard Brad’s voice in my head, “AJW, you’ve got yourself a lunch-pail day on your hands.” And, of course, Brad’s voice was right. At that point I quickly abandoned any thoughts of time goals and split times and began to simply contemplate what kind of mindset it would take to traverse the next 20 miles of shoe-sucking Mississippi River muck.

Back at the start/finish area, there were 25k runners celebrating the fact that they didn’t need to go “out there” again as well as 50k runners who were deciding to call it a day early. I was resolved not to be one of those so I just grabbed my lunch pail and trudged out into the slop again. That long, lonely journey across the river bluffs and through the ankle-deep sludge was, indeed, miserable. But there was also something enriching out there, something about the day that was testing me more mentally than it was physically. And I suppose that is where the wisdom of the lunch-pail day comes into play.

In running and in life, we simply have days that we just have to soldier on and it is in the simple act of getting through that we get stronger, better, and perhaps a little bit smarter. Acknowledging that you are in the midst of a lunch-pail day is important as doing so takes vulnerability and surrender. However, once accepted, stomping through the muck of one of those days can bring us closer to the essence of why we run, or why we do anything for that matter. As we get close to that essence, we experience life in its most primal form, even if it is a miserable slog in the moment. And if we come out the other side unscathed, lunch-pail days can make the rest of our days better, and that is a very good thing!

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Meddlesome Brewing Company in Cordova, Tennessee. Meddlesome’s Broad Hammer is a fantastic American Brown Ale that is incredibly smooth and warming. While not a Porter, it almost drinks like one as it has a chocolate-y finish that is just the right blend of bitter and sweet.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When was the last time you had a lunch-pail day, a training day that was harder on the mind than the body?
  • What convinced you to continue on?

From left to right is Brad Mitchell, AJW, and Hank Dart training in Idaho. All photos courtesy of Hank Dart.

Brad Mitchell and AJW.

AJW and Brad.

There are 6 comments

  1. Jonathan Gardner

    Long runs in a winter rain. That’s a lunch-pail day for me. Had one a few weeks back where I really didn’t want to go out, but knew that if I didn’t it would make it (mentally) that much easier to quit on race day.

    Also, noontime runs in the middle of summer, which is about five days a week for me!

  2. John Vanderpot

    It must’ve been like a lunch-pail weekend — I needed nearly 5 hrs. to finish a 12M loop at Coldwater last weekend, and it wasn’t even raining in AZ?

    (In the middle pic it appears Brad is welcoming the challenge to come, AJW not so much?)

  3. Jack

    Great story, I’ve had a lunch-pail last year and a half…
    For me I guess, Holiday Lake a couple years ago when it was 10 inches of snow and light rain at the start. That was the year that Amy broke her leg I think, not sure if you ran it. Trail runners are a tough sort indeed.

    I’ll think of this tomorrow morning as we run a loop around HL as I’m fat, older, light on miles, and my knee hurts. Miss your bright smile and characteristic laugh.

  4. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Great column, AJW. At least you didn’t slip and get a concussion this time!
    I’ll remember your advice & perspective next month while doing repeats on a snowy/slushy/muddy mountain in SLC during the 12 hour RUFA event.

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