Not Made for This

Zach Miller writes about working on weaknesses in running, and ignoring the voices in your head that tell you you are not built for this sport.

By on April 21, 2023 | Comments

It’s funny the things you remember in life. To this day I still remember middle-school art class. My teacher was Mrs. Edwards and though I was a good student, I found the class to be challenging. I was already struggling a bit when she assigned a new project. Everybody in the class was divided into teams. Each member of the team had to look at the same scene and draw it without looking at their paper. Then we had to tear our drawings apart and give a piece to each of our teammates. Finally, we had to use these pieces to recreate the original scene.

I remember being stressed. My partners were not exactly the most exemplary students. How was I to do well on this project if I was at the mercy of their lackadaisical efforts? But what could I do? These were the cards I was dealt.

I forged ahead, trying hard to make something good out of what to me, seemed like rubbish. Perhaps it would have been less stressful if I had a better handle on the concept of art. My analytical brain felt like it was important to create something that looked like the original, but looking back, I don’t think that was as important as I thought it to be. My job was to create art, not an exact replica.

Fortunately, I found my way through the project. I took those broken pieces and crafted them into something pretty cool. In fact, Mrs. Edwards even selected my piece to be entered in a special art show. The show requested a title for my piece, so I gave them one word — “Fixed.” Because in my mind, that’s what it was — a bunch of broken pieces that I had fixed.

This memory has been stored away in my brain for about 20 years, and it recently resurfaced after I spent some time training along the coast in Northern California. I was on my way back from spectating at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, taking my time to explore some new trails as I ventured north to Oregon.

Zach Miller - sunny California coast trails

Zach Miller running sunny Californian coast trails. All photos courtesy of Zach Miller.

One day, while driving up the coast, I turned off the Shoreline Highway and onto a steep, windy, dirt road that took me way down to a secluded beach. Here I found some wild and rugged running on the Lost Coast Trail. Rather than rush off after my run, I decided to spend the night and explore some more in the morning. I awoke to a beautiful day and set out to run a trail that I had noticed the day before.

The trail was glorious. It was well-built singletrack that wound its way through towering redwoods as it made its way to a point high above the sea. From beginning to end, it was teeming with lush vegetation. But there was one section in particular that stood out. Within the first mile or so of the trail, there stood a grove of peculiar trees. They started out with a big, thick trunk, which grew about 10 feet or so in height before branching off into a plethora of smaller trunks, which then shot straight up like fingers on a hand. It was a peculiar and curious sight.

After doing some reading, I learned that these trees are called candelabra redwoods. The funny thing about them is that the candelabra shape that they exhibit is not their typical form, but one they take on in response to the harsh winds and salty air of the coast. Interestingly enough, the odd shape of these trees also protects them from loggers, who don’t want to bother harvesting trees with such narrow trunks.

Zach Miller - candelabra redwoods

Candelabra redwood trees in northern California.

As I thought about this, I wondered if the ability of these trees to survive the loggers would turn into a biological advantage that could be passed down from one generation to the next. But, as I thought about it more I realized this probably wasn’t the case. As far as I understood, these trees weren’t growing like this because of a difference in their genetic makeup, but as a response to their surroundings. To me, this was inspiring.

The candelabra redwoods didn’t have anything extra special about them, nothing in their genes forcing them to grow this way. They simply grew like this as a response to the challenges they faced. In short, they found a way to thrive even though the deck was stacked against them.

Naturally, this made me think about running. As a runner it is easy to feel inadequate, to think you lack the talent to succeed. But guess what. There is hardly anyone, maybe no one, who has all of the talent. Sure, there are more and less talented people in this world, but at the end of the day, if you want to be good at something, you have to put in the work.

Maybe you don’t have as much speed or strength as you’d like. Maybe your downhill running is weak. Perhaps you’ve never had great cardiovascular fitness. Whatever it may be that you feel is in your way, don’t worry. These are the broken pieces of your art piece, the wind and salt of your coastline. They are the things you can work on, rearrange, and get better at.

Broken pieces can become beautiful works of art. Trees can adapt and thrive in some of the harshest conditions. And determined, persistent athletes can achieve remarkable things when they refuse to believe the lie that they “just aren’t built for that.” Don’t let the voices in your head keep you from chasing your goals. Make art out of rubble, grow trees in the wind, and chase what you fear you can’t catch.

Call for Comments

Do you have any weaknesses that you feel hold you back in your running?

Zach Miller - descending on wet rocks - California

The author working on some slippery descending.

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.