Ready or Not

I remember the first time I ran a 50-mile race. It was the 2013 JFK 50 Mile, and to be honest, I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. I had registered for the race about a week prior. I entered partly because my high-school track coach Jeff Bradley said I should, partly because I wanted to test myself, and partly because I was curious. I had never run 50 miles before, let alone raced it. A few weeks before, I had raced the Bootlegger 50k and didn’t finish as high as I hoped I might. I remember thinking, Maybe I’m not that good at this. Yet, on November 23, 2013, I put my foot on the starting line at JFK.

When the gun went off at 7 a.m., I didn’t hesitate. I ran with the leaders. By the time I turned onto the C&O Canal Towpath around mile 17, I was in third place. A short while later, I caught up with Ian Ridgeway in second and then Josh Arthur in first. Soon after, Rob Krar caught up with both Josh and I, and our pack of three went tearing off down the trail. Eventually Josh dropped back, but Rob and I ran together for many miles. We went neck and neck all the way to mile 38. At mile 41, Rob withdrew and I trudged on.

At 12:38 p.m., I crossed the finish line alone. I had won the race and was shocked. Shortly after, I returned to the cruise ship on which I worked back then and resumed my life at sea. As the shipped sailed around the world, I did much of my training on the treadmill and in the crew stairwell. Then, on port days, I would escape the confines of the ship to train in whatever random part of the world we were visiting for the day. Sometimes we would be in a city and I would simply pound the pavement. Other days, we would be in places with easy access to mountains and trails. On those days, I would step off the ship and scan my surroundings for something to climb. On really good days, I would run up a peak, tag the summit, and run back down before the ship set sail. Port days were the ice cream of my training diet. Sea days, though very effective, felt like cold, plain oatmeal.

As I did all of this, the race that I thought I would run once I completed my work contract and left the ship was the Mad City 100k. For those unfamiliar, Mad City is a 100k road race in Madison, Wisconsin. My main reason for running it was that it was a qualifying race for Team USA’s 100k team. My training for the race was a slow and steady build-up. It was going well, but then my sponsor threw out the idea of doing the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile instead. Although I was intrigued, Lake Sonoma would be a diversion from my original plan. Sure, it was an ultramarathon, but it was a few weeks earlier and on an entirely different type of course. Lake Sonoma was 50 miles of undulating trails whereas Mad City was 100k’s of road. I wasn’t sure if it would be smart to jump ship. I didn’t know if I could be ready in time. Nonetheless, I took the bait.

About 10 days before Lake Sonoma, I jumped off the ship for good in San Francisco, California. That evening, I hopped into a track workout with Alex Varner and his speedy comrades. Again, I was hesitant to join, as I wasn’t sure if I was ready for a workout like that, but I went anyhow. Much to my delight, it went really well. I ran a workout that was on par with just about any track workout I had done in college when I specialized in track 10k’s. I spent the night there in California, and then caught a flight to Colorado. I was welcomed to the state by Chris Vargo. It was the first time I had ever met Chris in person, but he took me in with welcome arms. I slept on his couch and used his pick-up truck when he wasn’t. We went running on the Section 16 Trail and he schooled me on the climb. Chris blamed it on the lack of traction on my shredded shoes. I questioned my fitness and ability, and tried to suppress the doubt. We talked about the impending race as Chris and I were both slated to run Sonoma. He talked of how the leaders would go out fast. Doubt crept in once again as I questioned my ability to keep up with that kind of pace.

On race day, the gun went off and I just ran. I didn’t have much of a strategy. I tried to pick a pace that I felt like I could plug away at all day. I suppose it worked because by the end of the race I was still running and the first to cross the line. All of those uncertainties and I ended up just fine.

So why do I keep digging up old stories of times when I felt so unsure of myself? Because I realized something recently. Uncertainty can be crippling, and that’s dangerous. I have been thinking about this lately in regard to what is going on in the world. Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks are just a few of the Black Americans who’ve been recently and unjustly killed. These are just the deaths which hit the news in the past few months, and only a fraction of a story that has been going on for what seems like forever. In the wake of all this, and ready or not, a nation is protesting.

The idea that I am getting at is that we need to let our voices be heard, as so many people are doing right now. I’m not telling you what that voice needs to say. I’m just saying that there are times when something is so important that it is imperative to speak up, to step up, and to act.

But, you know what can get in the way of doing so? The same thing that could have kept me off of the starting lines at JFK or Lake Sonoma: uncertainty. We live in a world in which we seem to share nearly everything, and yet, at least for myself, sometimes when it comes to the important stuff, I hesitate. Recently I have come to realize that my hesitation seems to be fueled by two things: laziness and uncertainty.

In today’s social-media-crazed world, we seem to be constantly inundated with a barrage of sharing. Meticulously edited photos and carefully crafted captions litter the web. And in return, there are comments galore and criticisms from people we don’t even know. As a result, I share the casual with ease, but take pause when it comes to the more serious things. Addressing the serious stuff takes a lot more effort. It requires us to collect ourselves, think things through, and choose our words wisely.

In a way, it’s good. But sometimes it can feel crippling. We get stuck on the idea that we need to have it all together before we share. We want to know where we stand and why. Sometimes that’s good. Other times, it’s unrealistic. If we sit around waiting until we feel ready, we’ll miss the boat. And that’s dangerous. We don’t need people standing on the dock. We need people on the boat talking, discussing, sharing, and hoisting sails of action. We need people willing to toe the line, even if they’re not sure if they know what they’re doing. Because in the end you can’t win anything you’re too afraid to start. And as a friend once told me, “starting is half done.”

Call for Comments

  • In the social-justice crisis, have you found difficulty in voicing your thoughts and opinions due to a feeling of uncertainty?
  • In moments like this, what do you think about sharing a not-fully-formed or certain idea simply because the sharing is the most important part?

Photo 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.