The Optimistic Runner

AJW's TaproomEarlier this week, I was fortunate to get my hands on an advanced copy of Dan Rather’s new collection of essays, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, which will be released on November 7th. In this thoughtful retrospective, the 86-year-old veteran newsman reflects back on more than a half century of American history and makes a persuasive case for what he believes to be Americans’ most enduring and unifying characteristic, optimism.

After putting the book down and thinking about Rather’s suggestions on my morning run the other day, I thought to myself, If I could write an essay about ‘what unites us,’ what would I say?

Of all the long-distance runner’s traits that I admire and aspire to possess–grit, discipline, focus, patience–perhaps the most impressive one to me is optimism. There seems to be something deep-seated in the runner’s DNA which engenders positivity and hope. In his book, Rather speaks about what he believes to be the distinctly American tendency toward finding a way through, even in the most difficult and trying times, to something better and more hopeful on the other side.

This past June, I had the opportunity to spend about eight hours at the Rucky Chucky river crossing aid station at the Western States 100. If ever there was a Rubicon in ultrarunning, literally and figuratively, this place is it! What I saw there that afternoon and evening was nothing short of an optimism clinic. Even among the runners who chose to end their races there at mile 78 seemed to do so with a sense of hope about the future.

The river crossing at Western States arrives at a time in the race when despair and pessimism could easily rule the day. Coming at the end of a winding 16-mile trail section with quad-busting descents and soul-sucking climbs, Rucky Chucky is a place that has brought down countless runners. After braving the oppressive heat of the canyons and the sustained pounding of Cal Street, mile 78 has all the makings of a perfect DNF storm. Yet, what I witnessed at the race this past year was a feast of hope. Runners slumped in chairs came back to life. Folks with shredded quads, trashed feet, and funky stomachs put their despair behind them and moved on. I even saw former winners, not having their best days, light the spark of positivity and move on. At the river crossing, the optimistic runner ruled the day.

For me, optimism engendered through my life on the run is a perpetual beacon of possibility. In the midst of times that can be dominated by angst and uncertainty, running provides clarity of purpose and along the way, a sense of peaceful hope. And it is armed with that wisdom that I lace ’em every day and get after it.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Ballast Point Brewing Company Coconut Victory at SeaThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Ballast Point Brewing Company in San Diego, California. They make a delicious coconut-infused Imperial Porter, Coconut Victory at Sea, that is the most balanced coconut beer I’ve had. With just the right blend of sweetness and maltiness, this is one of those beers that, quite literally, melts in the mouth.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you choose optimism on the run?
  • Do you see benefits from consciously opting for a glass-half-full mentality even in potentially negative situations? And can you share a story of when optimism worked for you?
  • Does perpetual optimism ever get in the way of reality? As in, do some parts of life actually require neutrality or even a negative approach?

There are 17 comments

  1. Brandon

    I frequently tell people they ought to volunteer at a race so they can see firsthand the optimism and perseverance of ultrarunners. To me, it’s always been inspiring to see average runners (like me) and sometimes the pros struggling to get to the next aid station or beat the cutoff, just make it to the finish. While volunteering at a Cal Street aid station this past year I saw many-a-pro and others come through looking horrible. Somehow many of them managed to get through and finish. Incredible. I told my kids (11 and 15) some of their stories as I showed their finish line pics to them afterward. Frankly, I was amazed that a handful of the walking wounded I saw made it even to our aid station. But to then charge on through the night another almost 50k? I don’t know what they found deep down to help them keep going, but whatever it was it must have been strong. Yes, it’s just one day and one event, but it’s a snapshot of what we’re capable of when we give it our all, and then give it some more.

    1. AJW

      Thanks for the comment Brandon. Which Cal Street Aid Station did you work? Cal 2 perhaps? In my experience some of the lowest low points in the history of WS have happened there. I’d love to see your photos!

  2. Andy M

    In running, and in life, we have to be present while, at the same time, focused just the right distance ahead, with purpose, vision, and hope in even the darkest of times. After all, it certainly doesn’t always get worse!

  3. John Vanderpot

    Mr. JW, I couldn’t help but notice, since your name is right next to mine on the starter list, that you will be headed out this way early next Aug., so in the spirit of running, optimism, and finish line refreshments, please feel free to put in an advanced order for the local brewery beverage of your choice, and I will make the necessary arrangements for delivery, my way of saying thanks for all the Friday morning smiles —

    See you in Wrightwood,


      1. John Vanderpot

        SD is my idea of local, and you can check with our mutual friend Scotty, my generosity is well-known around here…

        Place an order,


        1. AJW

          OK my friend, here are three I’ve been dying to try. Dork Squad, Tower 10, and The Pupil. And, of course anything else that might tickle the taste buds.

  4. Oscar

    Dear Andy,
    I am not an ultrarunner, (just go out for a run once a week really), but I really enjoy running and reading your articles.They are always meaningful and usually make me think about the sensations I have when I take my weekly run.
    Besides, I usually read your articles on friday evening so they are something of the weekend- kickoff for me.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your thougths and feelings with us.

    Best regards,

    1. AJW

      Thanks for your comment Oscar! Trust me when I say I enjoy writing these weekly dispatches as much as you enjoy reading them. I appreciate your kind words.

  5. john

    I feel that you cannot be a runner and not be optimistic.

    I know this might be generalizing people, but when a runner approaches the starting line, whether the runner is a world-class runner or a back-of-the-pack finisher, the runner may have doubts about finishing. But they say to themselves, “I will finish this race regardless. I am so happy to be here.”

    If a runner approaches the starting line saying, “I do not have a chance of finishing, let alone running well” that person is most likely not a true runner given the pessimistic thinking. This person will most likely keep dropping out of races, and then does not even show up due to a pessimistic attitude which leads to a lack of confidence.

    And this optimistic and full of confidence attitude shows on everyones’ faces at any starting line, whether it is the local 5km fun run all the way to the longest ultra-marathon. Watch how people start and then watch as they finish and enjoy the post-race activities. Runners who finish a race are full of life, smiling, tired but very happy. And what do most runners say afterward? “I am looking forward to my next race!”

    True optimists!

  6. Max

    “the distinctly American tendency toward finding a way through, even in the most difficult and trying times, to something better and more hopeful on the other side.”

    Sorry but I don’t think that is “distinctly American”. Yes, many Americans exhibit that, and you can go all Lewis and Clark for sure, but many Americans are dictated what to do and think and buy. The exact same thing happens in just about every country, developed or developing. Examples in History are countless.

    No debate though that it is often great inspiration to see people pull through, and ultra-running has a lot of that. It’s clear that you need to be optimistic to be successful given what the trail throws at you.

    1. AJW

      Max, thank for the comment. And, just to be clear, in the passage you cite I was mentioning Rather’s point of view as presented in his book.

  7. David

    I could not agree more. When I see my fellow runners, many of them two or even more decades older than me, with broad smiles on their faces, it always boosts my energy. Recently I wrote an article on the same topic but from the opposite perspective – on managing pain in ultrarunners. See here: if you are interested
    Thanks for your article anyway!

  8. Diego Garcia

    I think I am optimistic in the way I always have a smiley face prior to a race or a training session. I think is useless to complain about an injury or a bad day. Even if I can´t perform at full for any reason, my message to my friends is we are strong enough to leave home and show at the starting line.

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