Improvement

Last May I boarded a plane in Denver and flew all the way to Spain. I didn’t have to pay for this trip. Rather, someone else picked up the tab because I’m “fast” and they wanted me to run a race on the Canary Islands with lots of other fast runners. When, several months before, I had read the email inviting me on the trip, I had sat dumbfounded. The invite was so unexpected that my emotions were delayed. A free trip to Spain! This was the real deal.

It turned out to be far more than just a free trip to Spain. It was a trip to the Canary Islands, where we were housed in a luxury resort and served gourmet food for a week, followed by a trip to the northern part of mainland Spain, where we received the same treatment. The whole time we were catered to, waited on, accommodated for and given everything we asked for. In many ways the trip felt like a grown-up version of high school cross-country – everything was taken care of for us and we just went along, raced and had a good time. That last part is what I’m really trying to get at. We had a really good time.

In order to provide credibility to my story, let me remind everyone that I was hanging out with people like Mike Wolfe, Geoff Roes and Kilian Jornet. I was given a lesson in wine-tasting by Sebastien Chaigneau and played guitar with Anna Frost. I jumped off a cliff into the ocean with Rickey Gates and practiced my Spanish with Iker Karrera. For people who are into the sport of ultrarunning, this is a big deal. I found that not only are these people really talented runners, they are also a lot of fun to hang out with. I like to think that mountain runners are cool people first and athletes second, and many of the people on this trip bore that theory out. Mike Wolfe used to work with troubled teens in Jackson Hole before becoming a lawyer and now a pro runner. Geoff Roes seems to have travelled around the country for many years before settling in Alaska and turning into the Geoff Roes who wins 100-mile races. Ian Sharman does something – I’m not sure what – but from what I can tell he has been all over the world and has a job and can run 100 miles in 12:44. Those are just three examples. I got to know so many people in Spain that to list them all would take far too long. The point is that I saw truly that the sport is comprised of people, not just runners.

But we weren’t just there for fun and games. We were there to race. The first race (and, frankly, the only one where you should pay attention to the results) was the Transvulcania 84km. For my less discerning readers the name comes from the fact that we were traversing (“trans”) a volcano (Spanish (maybe): “Vulcania”). The race was awesome. We started at sea level, the ocean spray nearly splashing over the start line, and proceeded to run up forever. The trail for the first several miles was loose black volcanic sand, and we charged uphill elbows swinging until the field settled into a manageable pack. As the sun rose I found myself running through a desiccated landscape of black rock and pine trees. The ocean haze blended the horizon with the sea on three sides, and way in front pointed up.

I had a good day, and found for the first time that I was able to run as hard as I can with the fastest people in the world and finish well. So well, in fact, that I won the race and set a course record. With only three miles to go I was running neck and neck with a guy who had, only ten minutes, before blazed past me like I was standing still. I was at my utmost limit, my energy so focused that anything beyond the immediate motions to continue moving forward were nonexistent. I didn’t look at the crowds; I didn’t look at the hill looming ahead; I didn’t high-five spectators; I simply ran as hard as I could and let my mind pull my legs forward. While climbing the final hill I dimly realized that I was pulling into the front, and as I came over a rise someone yelled, “un kilometre!” Then a police car fired up and escorted me down the long main street, packed full of hysterical fans, all the way to the finish. I won the race.

Winning felt good. For the obvious reasons, of course, but for others as well. My performance at UTMB the previous summer had been embarrassing; I was glad to prove that I can be worth something. I respected, and still respect, every person I competed against, to a degree that they inspire me to be better with every training run; I was proud to measure myself against them. And, as silly as this may sound, I understood how much work and money had gone into my being at the race at all; I was happy to have made the trip worth their while. That was the biggest win of my career thus far and I will always remember the trip that made it all happen.

That said, I won’t be returning to Transvulcania this year, for the simple reason that I could not do any better. Even if I were to win the race again and set a faster course record, that would only be an improvement by degrees. I am no better than many of the people I ran against last year, and would have no guarantee of winning again, but I ran Transvulcania as well as I will ever run it and that’s a good enough reason to move on to the next goal. I’m taking the same approach to the Lake Sonoma 50 mile – it’s a wonderful race and I had an amazing experience, but I have done all I can there, and I’m ready for the next step. This doesn’t go for every race, I suppose. The Hardrock 100, for example, has a special place in my heart and I look forward to returning to it someday. Then again, I haven’t run as well there as I know I’m capable of, so the desire to try again is strong. The bottom line for me is that once I have accomplished a goal I like to move on. Dominance does not interest me; progression does.

My progression is not for everyone. I have goals designed by dreams dictated by values. My values manifest as priorities, and my priorities alienate some and inspire others. By saying I’m somehow “finished” with Transvulcania will seem to some people arrogant, as if by having won the race I am somehow better than it. That is not the case, in my view. Rather, I believe that I have done all that I can at that race, learned a lot, and should now move forward onto something new. Fixating on success is so easy, and trying new things is so hard. Thus, in either an attempt to be better or an attempt to continually suffer failure (however you look at it), I am trying new things. And these new things aren’t really high-profile, because they mostly involve moderately difficult technical climbing, the kind of climbing that anyone can do. My theory is that if I get good enough I can go big and fast and expand my range as an athlete. But that remains to be seen. For now I’m just trying to improve.

Perhaps the point I’m trying to make is that in order to be really fulfilled I need to always be trying to improve. Being “improved” would be stagnant and boring. But trying to improve is difficult, demoralizing, painful, discouraging and… worth it. Piecing together success from the countless fragments of failure is what makes a person better, and even though I am so often not as good as that sentence, even though I’m so often lazy or unmotivated or boring, I still believe that recognizing my shortcomings as stepping stones in light of a continual effort to be better is the way to improve as a person. I want to strike a balance between meekness (“I suck”) and arrogance (“I’m awesome”). That’s why I’m going from the best year of racing of my life to whatever the hell is going on this year, which I’m still totally unsure of. Perhaps this will all turn out to be a bust and a failure, but I don’t think it will ever be a waste of time. That’s because the goal is worth trying for.

That’s really all I have to say. Find the goals that are worth trying for. Believe that you can accomplish them, and don’t get discouraged when you fail a thousand times. With enough passion and persistence, you will become better and achieve those goals. Beyond all else, don’t let anyone else dictate the way you view the world. If you believe in your goal, you should also believe in its superiority to other pursuits that want to use your time and energy. Make choices and stick to them. Believe in yourself. You can do anything you set your mind to.