It Changed My Life! Or Did It?

On a recent Saturday run I caught up to someone I hadn’t met before, and to pass the time I struck  up a conversation. Turned out she’d run the Western States 100 just two weeks prior. “I messed up my leg less than two miles into the race,” she told me, “and it bothered me the rest of the way.”

“But you finished?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Eight minutes before the cutoff.”

She said this in a casual tone, as though it were no big deal. But I knew she wasn’t downplaying what she’d done. Among ultrarunners, understatement is the preferred method for discussing races. So I then asked if she believed finishing that race was a true life-changing event for her. “Yes, definitely,” she said.

I asked her that question because I’d begun to feel the same way after finishing my own hundred-miler last month. Not that I’ve become a totally different person, but I’ve acquired a definite “before Kettle” and “after Kettle” perspective; a new reference point from which to compare life’s challenges.

This is going to stay on my fridge door for a long time, I think.

This is going to stay on my fridge door for a long time, I think.

For example, in the last few weeks I’ve been stuck in several long traffic jams, made worse because the air conditioning in my car is faulty. The most recent occurrence was heading up north on a two-lane highway, where a “seven-minute delay” (per cell phone app) stretched into nearly an hour. As I sat there steaming (figuratively and literally), the thought came unbidden:

You’ve run a hundred miles at a time. You can get through this, too.

This thought did not magically cure my impatience, as my wife can tell you. And yet, it did help. When one has steadily pushed through over 24 hours of continuous motion, a measly one-hour inconvenience seems rather silly to get upset about. Perhaps it even worked too well in my return from Toronto, where I endured two hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic before I got off the freeway to find an alternate route.

There are running jams, too, but the energy is much more positive. (2011 Chicago Marathon)

There are running jams, too, but the energy is much more positive. (2011 Chicago Marathon)

In reality, though, it wasn’t the race itself that changed my life. Running it was the culmination of all the training that went into preparation for it. Crossing the finish line was just the evidence that I could accomplish something I couldn’t have done before. Champion ultrarunner and coach David Roche puts it best: By the time you get to the start line, the work is done.

This is one of the appeals of ultrarunning that many others have written about; that in the end, the training is more about becoming a better person. Whether the goal is increased physical fitness, self-discipline, or even dealing with and overcoming addiction, the steady, consistent effort is what makes the end result possible.

So I suppose that means even if I hadn’t finished Kettle for some reason, I’d still be more patient and determined than I was five years ago when I began ultra training. Saying you’ve done X is just shorthand. Still, it feels really good to actually have done it.

But it hasn’t been just inner dialog. A couple weeks ago I was at Body Specs working through a particularly tough segment on a hot, humid afternoon. As I struggled to my feet I caught the eye of one of the trainers. She smiled.

“Bet you’d rather be running a hundred miles right now, huh, Jeff?” she asked.

Well, not really. But the thought was tempting.

On second thought - where's the starting line?

On second thought – where’s the starting line?

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