Being Present

These days my training is very simple. It’s the off-season, and I’m trying to recover from what has felt like a long, taxing racing year. This is nothing new really. Each year I tend to run my first big race around April and my last in November or December. By the end of the year I’m usually pretty worked, and this year is no different. I started off with a Pennsylvania classic, the Hyner Trail Challenge 25k, and ended with a surprise running of the JFK 50 Mile.

There were a few wins, a few not wins, and one very unexpected DNF at UTMB. I raced in the Trail World Championships, ran five new-to-me races (the Hyner Trail Challenge, Trail World Champs, Crow Pass Crossing, Cortina Trail, and BUFF Epic 26k), raced in one new state (Alaska–it was rad), finally made it to the Dolomites in Italy, and bivouacked my way around Mont Blanc a few times. All in all it was a good season. But now the season is over and it’s time to rest (and maybe eat a few vegetables to make up for all the candy, soda, and ice cream I consumed while training in Europe).

So what does running look like after the season ends? At first it looked like nothing. Coming off the JFK 50 Mile, I had a bum hamstring. ‘Bum’ might be an understatement. Early on in the race I had felt a tweak in my left hamstring. I didn’t freak out when it happened. To be honest, it really didn’t hurt that bad, and the thought that passed through my mind was, Oh, that’s not ideal. By the end of the race it was an entirely different story. What started off as ‘not that bad’ turned into a mass of swelling and discoloration. And pain, lots of pain.

For 10 days straight I did nothing. Actually, that’s not true. I did no running, but I did a lot of things. I was at home in Pennsylvania visiting family, so I went to lunch with my 90-something-year-young grandparents. This was great because we all moved at about the same pace. I watched football and hung out with family and friends. I hobbled around Lancaster Central Market and found peanut-butter hot chocolate, soft pretzels, and thyme pie. I went to an art gallery and bought a painting. I watched a movie, in a theater. I went hunting and didn’t hunt; instead I stayed in the cabin, slept, and procrastinated submitting my expedition proposals to my sponsor. It was all good.

Since I returned to Colorado (after JFK and Thanksgiving), my goal has been to run 30 minutes each day. Some days I’m in a cool place–I have to run to town from home at Barr Camp on the mountain, or back home from town, or I see a cool cloud-and-temperature inversion and want to get to a high point–so the run is longer. Most days, however, I run 30 minutes. Up here on Pikes Peak, with spaced-out oxygen molecules and snowy trails, this usually amounts to about two or three miles. Compared to the summer, when I routinely put in several hours a day, this threatens to feel insignificant.

In a few days I’ll take my seemingly insignificant minutes back to Pennsylvania again, this time for Christmas. Sometimes when I’m home my family and I do really productive things, like helping my sister and brother-in-law renovate their farmhouse or putting a new roof on my parent’s house. Everyone rallies together and a lot of work gets done. It’s the equivalent of the hard workouts in a training block, the days when you feel like you are really doing something. Shingles come off, flashing goes on, intervals get run, and legs get tired. At the end of the day it all feels very significant.

This time, since it’s the holidays, however, we won’t be out on a roof somewhere. Sure, there is plenty to do in preparing food and such, but there is also a lot of down time. Time spent playing games, watching football, socializing, napping, and doing whatever else people do during the holidays. I may even watch another movie. (I actually do like movies.) If family roofing projects are the workouts, then holidays are the recovery days, the 30-minute runs during the off-season and the ho-hum, nothing-special, just-put-the-time-in filler runs. Like my 30 minutes, this could threaten to feel insignificant.

And yet it’s not. In both running and life, these nothing-special moments are of utmost importance. My mother is the definition of the ‘hostess with the mostess.’ She always invites people over and cooks extravagant meals. Oftentimes close family will bring something to contribute, like a salad or a dessert, but it’s also not uncommon for my mom to tell someone to bring nothing but themselves. She doesn’t need their casserole dish or apple pie. All she wants is their presence.

The same holds true for me. My mom doesn’t ask me to bring anything when I come home. She just wants me there. And you know what? Being there is the most important thing. We don’t have to do anything big or exciting. Some folks might think their time would be better spent elsewhere, or that it wouldn’t be a big deal if they weren’t there, but you know what happens when we show up and choose to be present? We grow.

And the growing pays back. It’s like the ho-hum days in a training block. Or my easy days this winter. Those seemingly insignificant efforts lay the foundation for the significant ones. The hard intervals, tempo runs, and hill workouts don’t go so well if you don’t put in the time on the seemingly insignificant days. But, if you choose to show up and be present on the ho-hum days, you develop things like strength, stamina, and cardiovascular fitness. Then, when the day comes to test yourself with a hard workout, you have the tools needed to see it through.

It’s the same with friends, families, and relationships in general. If you take the time to be present, you and those relationships are more likely to grow. Growth leads to strength and strong people and strong bonds hold up in tough times. They give us people to lean on when we need some help, people to laugh with when times are good, and relationships to run to when we need a place of refuge.

Back home in Pennsylvania there is a book at my parent’s house titled Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living. I haven’t read the book yet, but the title really speaks to me in its suggestion that being present is more significant than being perfect. It makes me envision someone hosting a holiday get together and working like crazy to make sure everything is perfect, but in doing so failing to be fully present with their guests. To me, I would rather eat a holiday dinner with a present host and a few lumps in the gravy than have a picture-perfect meal served by a stressed-out cook who doesn’t leave the kitchen.

Sometimes we do the same with running. We get so caught up in trying to compose the perfect training block that running is no longer fun. We long for the perfect training plan, the perfect workout, and a perfect execution. But you know what I’ve learned over the years? There is no secret training plan, workout, or execution. Training is a real mixed bag of good and bad days. What does matter is that you show up give it a shot. Chances are, not every run will feel good, but if you put in the time, if you commit to being present, good things will follow.

So, go do the 30-minute run. Spend time with those you care about. Forget being perfect and start being present. The magic is in the present.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you sometimes catch yourself under appreciating the quiet, smaller moments between your bigger training days or in your running off-season? And how about in life?
  • When was the last time you let yourself soak in and appreciate the quiet, down time of your running off-season?
  • Is there a way for you to take Zach’s advice to ‘show up’ and be present rather than perfect in your life this holiday season?

Being present on Quandary Peak in Colorado. Photo: Zach Miller

The Miller family re-roofs together in Pennsylvania. Photo: Leah Nissley

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.