Health and the 2013 Moab Red Hot 55k

I got my ass kicked last Saturday. I ran the Red Hot 55k in Moab, and Rob Krar crushed the entire field, running fourteen minutes under Dave Mackey’s old course record. Had Krar not run I would have had a great race, but his performance completely overshadowed my own. Being a “professional” athlete, I might expect to be somewhat disappointed in not winning, but second place didn’t really affect me like I thought it would.

Running well brings expectations. I used to love being the nobody, because that way I could either do well and blow everyone away, or do poorly and nobody would know or care except myself. In short, I used to love low expectations. But then I did pretty well, and raised the standards for my own running, and now I’m the “superstar” who beat Kilian… once… out of five tries. I did well a few times and now other people expect a similar result with each race. At the Red Hot 55k I didn’t fail by any means – I am quite happy with second place – but the race got me thinking about failure nonetheless.

At the Red Hot 55k I didn’t have the race I wanted, which seems silly in retrospect because I actually totally had the race that I wanted. What I was hoping for was a win and a course record, and I broke the previous course record, which means I would have won any of the previous incarnations of that race. But I came nowhere near to winning this year – Rob Krar made sure of that. So I underperformed by a relative standard – that of the other runners – rather than a more realistic standard like my own progress on that course over time. Post-race reflection has allowed me to be comfortable with my race and my fitness, especially for February.

But beyond all that, I am just happy to have the luxury to look at a 3:55 55k with mixed feelings. In other words, I’m just happy to be able to run well at all. So many people are unable to do so, whether because of illness or disability or age or any of the thousands of other reasons that someone would be prevented from doing what they loved. I have seen people wasted by cancer and cancer treatment, struggling far harder than I can understand on a daily basis just to survive. I have seen people torn from the natural world through immobility and disease. These people must scoff at my writing. That I can be critical of my performance at all suggests that I sometimes take my running for granted. Any look at a larger perspective shows that, among the mass of human ailments, not being fast enough one day is a pretty fine luxury.

I want to revel in the experience of mountain running; I want to relish the individual moments of outdoor sports. I want to do things that are real and authentic and worth doing – things that I can be proud of. I don’t want to be famous if it means I have to do things I don’t support. As an example, photo shoots and videography are inherently inauthentic. I did a photo shoot at the Grand Canyon last year that has produced some amazing pictures of running in the canyon. But almost none of those photos came from the day I ran the double crossing, the day I did something real. Instead they all were taken over the next two days, which I spent running back and forth on the rim from dawn to dusk, recreating an idea of something real. On one hand, the photos represent something really great. On the other hand, the truth behind those photos is a few dudes sprinting back and forth for nothing better than showmanship, to sell products and to titillate the masses. I am not proud of that.

For now, however, that is simply a necessary evil in the pursuit of something good. By conceding to things like photo shoots I then gain the ability to travel the world just to run in the mountains, to make a living doing what I love. By doing a few things I dislike I have the opportunity to do a lot of things that I really like, such as running across the desert as fast as I can.

Moab’s Red Hot 55k is the perfect example of why I love the sport of ultrarunning. The course is beautiful, the weather (this year) was perfect, and the people were wonderful. After the race several people gathered at my house for a bonfire and late in the evening I looked at all the people around me and smiled. The people that were in my house, talking, laughing, playing games, drinking beer and so on – they were genuinely good people. To have them in my life means more than any win or course record. They were proof that even if I stopped winning I would still have great friends. That’s all that really matters. And the fact that I get to run hard in a beautiful place and associate with this group – that is something authentic, something I am proud of. That is why I like to race.

As I continue to build a career as a runner, the most important aspect of that is maintaining the life perspective necessary to recognize that I am simply fortunate to have the strength and ability to do what I love to do. I get to physically challenge myself to the extreme in the most striking areas of the world. The greatest tribute I can give to the people who don’t have that opportunity is to appreciate it fully for what it is – a beautiful gift to be cherished. I am more than satisfied with second place at the Red Hot 55k because I ran a good race for me. I expect most people that day ran the same good race, by their own standards. Those are really the only standards that matter.

What will stay with you is the experience, and the experience of ultrarunning is more than just the running. It’s the places, the challenge and most of all the people. A good race is the most positive experience I know – it’s the reason I want to hold a race of my own, in order to promote something truly authentic that I can be proud of. At these events, no matter what else is going on, no matter how small they are, even though they are in no way perfect, they are small examples of something genuinely good, something positive that contributes to the health of the world. And that, at the very least, is a pretty good start.