Hard is Hard

This year, I found myself chatting with a fellow runner about injuries and ailments. She explained how she was just coming back from a three-year injury. Wow! This made me think that whatever I had dealt with in the past year of my own injury problems was small peanuts in comparison. But then she pointed out that the intensity of one person’s problem does not make that of another person’s any less hard. Now she really got me thinking.

Her approach to adversity is similar to my view of altitude. For more than four years, I have been caretaking at Barr Camp on the side of Pikes Peak in Colorado. Across those years, one thing that never seems to change is how the hikers, backpackers, and runners all talk about the altitude up here. At an altitude of 10,200 feet, our camp is located thousands of feet higher than the home of many Coloradans, let alone out-of-towners from places like Texas, Minnesota, Kansas, and Florida. They comment on how difficult it is, telling us how they trained to climb this massive mountain, but couldn’t simulate the altitude. Sometimes I share a few tips, mostly about how to combat altitude sickness. At the end of the day, though, I can only do so much for them. Altitude is just plain hard.

Indeed, you can get more acclimated as your body develops additional red blood cells. But even when you’re used to it, altitude is still difficult. I’ve logged thousands of miles from the camp door over the years, and I’ve never felt the altitude let up. Sure, there are downhills that feel cruiser and magical runs when everything just flows. Even in these moments, the rigor of altitude is still there. Hard is hard.

As our conversation continued, she explained that as she returns from injury, she feels a need to re-learn how to embrace pain. Not pain from an ailment, but the sort of pain that comes with pushing yourself. The kind that you find halfway up a lung-busting vertical-kilometer climb or in the final minutes of a speed workout. I know I’m not alone when I say that I both love and hate this kind of pain. It’s agonizing and exhilarating at the exact same moment.

This is the kind of pain that naturally arises on race day. I know I for one dream of a race day with an endless pain cave. Not discomfort from the get-go, but the natural pain of racing that I encounter somewhere along the way and can just keep diving into. Where you can dig and dig and dig without falling apart. Instead of reaching for the mat and tapping out, you take every hit and always have one more punch to give. That’s my magic race day.

I also think it’s human nature to try and steer clear of pain. We all live in a world of convenience and seek to smooth the ruffles of discomfort. Our smartphones are the portals to getting things done efficiently. Car seats are heated, entertainment systems are voice-controlled, and even groceries are delivered to your car or front door. I am not saying that all of these things are bad, but what I am saying is that humankind puts a lot of effort into avoiding discomfort.

In running, there is a good and bad pain, what comes out of doing the work of our sport and out of injury. While we endeavor to not get injured, there is just no avoiding the good pain. To run is to, at least sometimes, be uncomfortable. In a sense, I think the good pain is partly what makes it so worthwhile. It’s what tells you that you are getting somewhere, the avenue to self-improvement and self-satisfaction.

Most endurance athletes understand what it means to put in the work and reap the rewards. However, I don’t think this concept should stop with athletic endeavors. We should extend it to everyday life, a space where I think just about everyone has moments where they have a tendency to make a b-line for the pain-free. Albert Edward Day states it well in The Captivating Presence when he writes that: “We avoid as much as possible the unpleasant. We shun the suffering of others. We shrink from any burdens except those which life itself inescapably thrusts upon us. We seek arduously the wealth and power that will enable us to secure ourselves against the possibility of being involved with another’s affliction. Lazarus sometimes makes his way to our door step. We toss him a coin and go on our way. We give our charities but we do not give ourselves. We build our charitable institutions but we do not build ourselves into others’ lives.”

We steer clear of that socially awkward person at work. We withhold a helping hand because to give it would be inconvenient or difficult. We drop a coin in the Salvation Army bucket or toss a few cans to a local food bank, but we won’t get to know that homeless man who sits on the corner every day. We’ll take our friends to the airport, if they agree to return the favor. Doing just a little bit more would take too much time, be too much effort, and feel too awkward.

As a runner, I would like the hard bits of my running to remind me to also seek out challenges in my real life. When we make running hurt a little bit, at the right time and in the right way, we grow. The same is true for life. When we venture outside of our comfort zone and into the realm of lending a hand in an uncomfortable area, we also grow. There are lots of caves out there to be had. Let’s get to digging, because what’s hard is hard, and you never know who might be deep inside and in need of a light.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What hard things do you shy away from in your running practice? How about in life?
  • And what hard things come a little ‘easier’ for you in either running or life?

All photos courtesy of Zach Miller.

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 11 comments

  1. Greta

    Developing an endurance mindset not just gratuitously but to have that Herculean strength (paidea, arete) for other areas. What is already hard becomes harder, because there are now more skills: learning endurance, learning to integrate this with other ways of knowing, learning to make it actionable. What a post you have written!
    That phrase, “build ourselves into others’ lives” is so … hard. I can’t help repeating what the first commenter wrote because it is just so true – I mean, the point is to be integrated into other people’s lives to the point of being truly remembered by each other, and that takes so much time, patience, extending the benefit of the doubt particularly if we are living in difficult circumstances: so much good faith and a dedication to giving for no return – giving that which, if one is in difficult circumstances, one was not even given themselves but is now extending to others in good will.
    You are a master at selecting key quotes that mirror us or what we need to remember to strive to be. I am in awe that you as a racer give this thought. I’m kind of into the ancient Greeks: it was really enough for them – take a look at Pindar – to be physically victorious: his poems make podium victory just so beautiful – but you are striving for even more than that. Here’s to you and all of us: may we keep on keeping on in all that is good.

    1. Zach Miller


      Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and kind words. I like your thoughts about hard things becoming harder. That’s how running feels for me sometimes. It is so simple, and yet there are times when he seems to get harder and harder even though it is still quite simple at it’s core. May we take on the challenges of whats hard and still keep an eye on the simplicity that exists in the midst of it all!

      – Zach

  2. Cassandra Schikkinger

    Thank you @irunfar.com for having Zach be a regular contributor on this site. He always has words of wisdom for all of us who read his work.

  3. Tim Rizzo

    @zmiller, I was just trying to convey to my 12 year old daughter(now an XC runner) why I run these long races, and while I feel like I got my point across pretty eloquently, I appreciate the opportunity to *then* say to her, “Here, read this. This is exactly what I’m talking about, and this guy is an incredibly talented ultrarunner to boot!” We all need to absorb and embody this message, but it’s just perfect timing as I try to teach it to my kid. Great article, and thanks!

  4. Nancy Bradley

    Your insights and ability to convey nuggets of wisdom and truth amaze us.
    Jeff’s runners, as they prepare for Districts, will hear him repeat your words, and those words will have special meaning and impact because they know you and your incredible story that is rooted in Hempfield and your relationship to Coach. Reading your post this morning was the perfect start to my day. I will try to embrace hard things and think of you.
    Your fan “Mrs. Coach”

    1. Zach Miller

      “Mrs. Coach”,

      Thank you so much for the kind words! I am glad to hear that Coach will share my words with the team. Hempfield Cross Country and Track played such a pivotal role in my development as a runner, and more importantly, as a person. May the team learn to embrace the hard stuff in both running and life. Chances are that very few of the runners on the team will go on to run professionally, but they will all go on to be members of society, and Coach is training them to be upstanding young men and women!

      – Zach

  5. Shinya

    I think accepting “hard is hard” is what makes pain exhilarating. As I am middle to back of a packer, I never race against others. I run my A-races against myself to run “harder” than I think I can. My pre-race ritual is to watch Miller vs Hawks and dream that I would run as hard as you did. Although I may never win a race, when I was able to run harder than my self-posed limit, the pain becomes so rewarding and feels like a win. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and being inspiring.

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