Ultrarunning Skill #4: Courage

AJWs Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of five columns on meta-cognitive skills and their role in running, education, and life. Here is article article #1, on persistence, article #2, on resilience, and article #3, on patience. My introductory piece three weeks ago invited you to share your stories, too. You can still share your thoughts by commenting on this article or by emailing me at ajwstaproom@irunfar.com.]

As a school person who has spent the last 25 years working with kids, courage is something I notice. It’s funny, you can see it in kids from a very young age and there are times when it looks an awful lot like recklessness or stupidity. But, over time, as kids evolve into adolescence and then into adulthood, courage is a characteristic that truly differentiates people. For me courage is fascinating, mysterious, and capricious. And yet, the best ultrarunners I know have it in spades.

I think the best way to build courage is to practice it, relentlessly, in your daily life. But, in reality, that is not always possible. So, the next logical step is to find those places where it is a necessary skill and then find a way to exploit those opportunities to build on the foundation courageous behavior inevitably develops. I am not talking here about risk, that is different. Jumping out of airplanes and rafting raging rivers takes courage but it also goes beyond the scope of basic courage. That’s risk. What I am talking about is facing a challenge head on, addressing it objectively and deliberately, and working with rigorous discipline to rise to the occasion that the challenge presents. That is where ultramarathon running provides a petrie dish for courage.

Over the years, I have been at over 150 ultramarathon starting lines. At each and every one, I have seen runners full of hope, desire, and courage. Those starting lines are some of the most electrically charged places in the sport. Then, of course, with the passage of time and miles much of that hope, desire, and courage gets worn away. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just the truth. And, by the time many of those folks get to the finish line, after the glow has been ground off and the reality of acute pain has set in, it is the courage that gets them there. Certainly, there is truth in the old adage that it takes courage just to start. But for my money, in my experience, it is in the act of getting these things done that takes extraordinary courage. And that is the lesson to us all.

Kids these days need adult models of courage. Sure, they have the Nelson Mandelas of the world but, as we’ve seen, those are few and far between. In truth, the everyday, courageous heroes can leave a lasting impact on our kids and can change the way they approach life and living. Hanging around ultrarunners for the past 20 years, I have seen more than my fair share of courageous people and they have all inspired me. Let’s spread that inspiration out to our communities. Not in ways that showcase how great we are or how much we’ve earned, but in simpler, more organic ways that bring us closer together as runners, as people, and as a whole. That is one way that the courage we all practice every day on the trail can make the world a better place.

Bottoms up!

Fresh off his courageous race in San Francisco at the TNF 50, Rob Krar reviews this week’s Beer of the Week!

Rob Krar’s Beer of the Week

“I’m fortunate for many reasons to live in the mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona, not the least of which is the long list of local breweries and friendly pubs to keep my thirst quenched. It’s been exciting to watch Wanderlust Brewing Company rise from nothing more than a dream and empty warehouse into a successful enterprise and one of the best watering holes in town. The name ‘Wanderlust’ comes from owner and brewmaster Nathan Friedman’s passion for travel and exploration and it’s a name that resonates strongly with my own philosophy of life.

Rob Krar-Wanderlust-1

“I’ve long been a big fan the wheat beer, hefeweizen, especially the unfiltered version, and Wanderlust upped the ante with its fall seasonal Dunkelweizen. ‘Dunkel’ is German for dark and this beer is consequently a darker version of the more traditional golden-yellow hefeweizen but lends a more complex caramelized and roasted malt flavor. It’s a real treat in the waning light of the fall months but alas, ‘tis a seasonal and sadly I’ll have to wait many fortnights before whetting my palette again with a pint of this one. 22 IBU, 5% ABV.

Rob Krar-Wanderlust-2

“For year-round salivary satisfaction, I turn to the Pan American Stout. This pleasingly dark ale includes vanilla beans from Mexico and Columbian-sourced, locally roasted coffee—a true world traveler indeed. Based off a classic oatmeal stout recipe, the sweetness of this taste-bud tantalizer is balanced perfectly by the subtle flavors of its crisp, roasted notes. I’ll happily savor this tasty brew after a winter ski or a summer adventure on the peaks. 25 IBU, 5% ABV.

“Wanderlust has started appearing on tap around town. If you find yourself in Flagstaff craving a pizza or hitting up a show or happy hour, you can grab a pint of the Pan American Stout in a number of places. Want to visit the warehouse where the goods are made to taste the latest seasonal delights from Nathan’s creative mind? Come down to the taproom on the east side of town Thursday or Friday nights to see where the magic happens!”

Rob Krar-Wanderlust-3

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you courageous? When was the last time you chose to face something very difficult head on, to plow right through it? This can be in running or the rest of life.
  • Can you share a story from trail and ultrarunning where you have watched courage in motion among the people around you?
  • And, what are some simple, organic examples of courage that we can share with each other?

There are 2 comments

  1. akopa

    This was great for me to read 1st thing in the morning …. that I may bring courage to Life today, in each moment that I so choose.
    Thanks AJW, and peace to all Beings everywhere.

  2. tahoepete

    All I can think about after readsing this article is drinking beer. Rob's beer breakdown is good it makes me want to go to a brewery.

    1. MikeTebbutt

      I agree! Krar is obviously practicing for his next career as a Professional Beer Critic. Very well written Rob!

      It takes Courage to " wait many fortnights before whetting my palette again" with the Dunkelweizen

  3. ClownRunner

    You can't force courage…you just have to be open to it happening on its own…

    Courage is:

    Not stepping aside when a lead runner comes barrelling down the trail in an out'n'back race. Stand your ground!

    Running without a headtorch in the dark. Use propioception!

    Drinking your favorite beers before the race instead of after. Courage juice!

    Walking the land bridge to your next international race. Save our Fossils!

    Trying to photo bomb the Top Ten Finisher Photo at Western States 2014. See if it can be done without anyone noticing!

    OK, sorry, just a Top Five list today…Back with a Top Ten next week…

  4. Shelby_

    When I think of courage, I think of the willingness to attempt something beyond your prior experience or perhaps in spite of prior experience. The possibility of failure does not dampen the urge to pursue a goal never before attained. I never attempted anything I wasn't 99% sure I'd succeed at until I started ultrarunning. While there are those who have confidence in their own ability to succeed at something new, I associate courage with someone who isn't sure if they can, but prepares to the best of their ability, lays it on the line and goes for it anyway.

    For a tortoise like me, the bar is pretty low — finishing ahead of the cutoffs. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't. While the successes certainly give confidence to pursue larger goals, the failures teach me so much, that the courage to attempt it again increases as well.

  5. scottrunsalot

    When you start your sprint kick to the finish with 10 miles to go, that's more than courageous, it's crazy awesome!! I really hope Rob, as well as Michele, walk away with UROY as they have been unbelievable all year. Can't wait for #5, AJW.

  6. orion3stars

    I take slight offense to the "risky raging rivers" reference being a wizened river-rat but reformed ultrarunner, the training and time spent learning the trades are the same. As with any endeavor, practice makes perfect, well at least courageous to the common mass!

  7. FernandoNBaeza

    Courage is facing something head on although you feel, your mental and physical faculties are compromised. Mindset is everything. This is the time when you as an Ultrarunner, apply your mental duress to any situation requiring courage. Personally speaking, I recently had to do something that required fighting against my strongest sentiments and rise above them, and endure. Sometimes, for many of us, situations become ongoing things and that's when courage, perseverance must endure. Have the courage always to be different, have the courage to be a man/woman apart, and above all, have the courage to stand up for what's right. Happy trailrunning everyone!
    Fernando N Baeza
    San Antonio, TX

  8. senelly

    Courage: The fourth of your BIG 5… It is as you say, courage requires risk. I would add that it needs fear. And, as you say, there's a big difference between momentary risk and that which requires us to stare into the face of persistent scariness… as in toeing the line at a big ultra and all the preparation leading up to it. Okay, it may not be a life-or-death (or lifelong) decision, but every time we face fear and move forward, we change our lives. As a school coach of runners, I advised that really good performances need the energy of fear-facing anxiety, that those pre-race butterflies were not only natural but helpful. The feelings associated with fear are genetic. We evolved fearing. Now, with few opportunities to face saber-toothed foes or mortal combat, building courage sometimes needs contrivance. Thus epic mountain ultras… Courage requires facing fear.

  9. Toddlikestorun

    great article. if you'd like to see real courage, go spend some time on a pediatric cancer ward. Those children DEFINE courage. What we do as ultrarunners/runners pales in comparisson.

  10. Ben_Nephew

    At first I was thinking that Rob's conservative start was more courageous given the typical ultra strategy, but given his dnf at JFK, taking off at mile 40 took a bit of courageous confidence. It's good proof that he did what he said he did about his JFK, just moved on.

    In general, I'm not sure how significant courage is when compared to persistence with long distance runners. Something that looks like courage acutely is probably the product of a great deal of work. Jon Olsen and Zach Bitter ran incredible 100's this year, but they had done the work and already put up performances that suggested their extraordinary goal paces were reasonable.

    AJW and senelly, do the reckless kids you see often end up being top athletes in the long term? The most reckless kids I knew growing up were probably more likely to end up with a drug addiction. Good call on the advice to your runners, senelly, similar advice given to kids taking the SAT's has been proven to increase scores significantly.

  11. rdlandes

    The simple definition I give my kids (and myself) for courage is this: "Doing the right thing, especially when you don't want to."

    Reading how others' understand courage helps. Two thoughts that particularly struck me were from …
    …Shelby: "When I think of courage, I think of the willingness to attempt something beyond your prior experience or perhaps in spite of prior experience."

    … and FernandoNBaeza: "Courage is facing something head on although you feel, your mental and physical faculties are compromised."

    Thanks for this series, Andy.

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