How Are You?

Zach Miller writes about how to have difficult conversations in the trail and ultra community.

By on May 19, 2017 | 22 comments

We sat in a restaurant waiting for lunch. We had been chatting away for much of the morning, but the question that came next caught my attention. “How are you?” I had heard it a million times, but never quite like that. Not with that look of sincerity. Those eyes. Those mannerisms. That level of attentiveness. For as many times as I had heard the question before, this time was different. Not for the question itself, but for the information that it sought. It wasn’t searching for a canned response. “Fine, thanks,” would not do. What was wanted was a sincere, truthful reflection of my well-being. Not some skirt-around-the-issues, avoid-the-truth, throw-up-a-wall-and-hide sort of garbage.

Weeks later, my alarm sounds long before dawn. As I crawl out of bed and onto the trail, I’m confronted with the very same question. “How are you?” Not a soul in sight, the trail itself heads up the interrogation this time. My initial response points to the most obvious details. I’m tired. I’m a little cold. My legs are a bit stiff. As the miles pass, the answers evolve. A couple of miles in, I’m warming up, finding my rhythm, or lack thereof. Many of these initial answers are in relation to physical feelings.

I hit a climb. “How do you like this?,” says the trail. “Are your legs strong? Is your fitness good? Do your lungs burn? Do you wish I weren’t as steep?” Crest and level out. New questions abound. “How about this? Does the flat feel fast? Still tuckered out from the climb? Can you find your rhythm? No? Maybe you should try mine.” Dive into a descent and things change again. The questions, the data, all of it is constantly on the move.

Sometimes the thoughts go deeper. Finding my physical groove, the mind begins to wonder. It focuses less on the constant biometric feedback of running and more on, well, anything. Politics, social issues, and race goals/dreams. All is fair game. On good days the most difficult things seem so simple. The answers that were once so elusive feel surprisingly attainable.

More remarkable than the accessibility of such difficult answers is the freedom of the trail. Although it poses many “How are you?” questions, it doesn’t demand a specific answer. In fact, it actually does quite the opposite. Like a good friend, it poses the question and patiently awaits the truth. The trail has no agenda. It tests, challenges, and provides an opportunity to think, but it places no stipulation on the end result.

It’s like the interaction described in the beginning of this piece. The question was posed, but the answers were open. Now some might say that seems too wishy-washy. They might argue that a true friend should try to facilitate a more structured avenue of thought. But that’s just it, a true friend isn’t focused on themselves. They don’t cripple their questions with unnecessary expectations, judgements, and preconceived notions. Sure, they have their opinions, but they understand that there is great value in trying to understand someone else’s rather than forcing their own. In short, a good friend poses a “How are you?” question not to hear what they want, but to hear what is true.

Reflecting upon a couple difficult discussions I’ve witnessed within the ultrarunning community over the past couple of weeks, I can’t help but think of how this applies. Are there sketchy ridgelines and climbs that need to be tackled by us talking with each other? Most certainly, but I feel that maybe we are approaching such obstacles in the wrong way. Take the recent debate about marijuana use in ultrarunning as an example. Sure, the issue on tap was a class-five ridgeline with caution written all over it. Such ridges ought to be traversed with great care and calculated steps. Unfortunately, much of what I witnessed being said was far from careful or calculated. Rather than trying to understand and learn from one another, people seemed to talk at and over each other. A few voiced reasonable comments, but many lashed out and attacked each other in aggressive and defensive manners that were far from productive.

Fast forward a bit and we were faced with another heated argument. This time the issue was gender equality at ultramarathon finish lines. Once again, the topic was quite heated and not lacking in opinions or discussion. A few voiced reasonable opinions while many others left comments that seemed to do a lot of attacking and a little understanding. The issue was important: gender equality is a mountain that humans have been struggling to climb for far too long now. We had a great opportunity to have a discussion about a very important topic. Unfortunately, we fought and argued, hindering our progress along the tricky ridgeline because we seemed more interested in being right, than being better.

Now, this isn’t to say that we lack all desire to be better. Even amidst the arguing, I think a lot of people do long to achieve some sort of positive progress. The problem is that we have trouble controlling our emotions. We get so caught up in what we believe to be right or true that we struggle to consider the fact that perhaps we are wrong and someone else is right. We ask a lot of questions and pose plenty of ideas, but we do so in search of a specific answer. As a result, our questions become slanted and our reception of those posed by others becomes limited.

Rather than ask such pointed questions for which we have already established our own answers, we should learn to ask “How are you?” questions. Such questions express more interest in the person than the issue. Sure, the issue is important, but it’s important because of the way in which it relates to the person. So, instead of searching for an answer to a generic issue, we ought to make an effort to first understand the person. We need to ask them “How are you?” in hopes that their truthful response will help us to better understand the problems at hand. While doing this, we must also find a way to pose the question in a manner that allows for an honest reply. Even if we ask the right question, it does little good if the person being asked feels too uncomfortable to give a truthful answer. Hence, we must learn not only to ask the right questions, but in the right way, too.

And so, don’t just look for your answer. Look for her answer, his answer, and their answer. Once you get them, in their most raw and sincere form, search for what it is that they mean. What do they say about the person? What needs do they express? What issues do they voice? Sometimes you’ll agree with what you find. Other times, not so much. A disagreement, however, is no reason to write things off and walk away. Instead, use it as an opportunity to continue the dialogue. Choose to engage with one another in a respectful way. Open your mind up to a different way of thinking. You don’t necessarily have to turn against your values or beliefs, but be open to the idea of seeing things a different way, to compromising, and at times, to shifting your viewpoint. To put it simply, take a minute to ditch your preconceived notions and pay attention to the needs of those around you. Forget about trying to be right, and focus on finding a way to do right. Dare to ask, “How are you?”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How best can we all foster open and constructive dialogue?
  • Do you ever catch yourself asking questions that are either not open ended or to which you don’t listen for the answers? If so, how do you catch yourself and how do you improve in the future?

The ultra-community conversations which Zach uses for examples have already taken place in depth elsewhere in the online trail and ultra community. With this article, Zach asks our community to consider the way these two sensitive conversations took place, not their actual subject matter. As you join the conversation here, please know that iRunFar has a comment policy to help maintain meaningful dialogue. Debate and disagreement are a part of healthy conversations, but kindly frame your opinions constructively. Thank you.

Zach Miller
Zach Miller lives in a school bus he outfitted himself. 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.