Did Not Suffer
“Who do you want to be?”
Six words, seemingly so simple. I’ve read Scott Jurek’s Eat & Run only once, but I’ve read those six words hundreds of times for one reason only.
I’ve never known the answer.
When it comes to running I’ve always joked that I’m very happy being the leader of the middle of the pack. I’ve never been able to run with the lead goats, and although in all my races I’ve pushed myself as hard as my training would let me, I’ve never pushed hard enough to stop me from running the same distance in the next day or two.
Maybe that’s not pushing at all. Maybe my running life has mirrored my greatest fear as a husband, a father, a man. Maybe I’ve taken too much for granted. Maybe I’ve just been… cruising.
As I age (somewhat) gracefully, I can look at myself in a few ways, and in the modest, middle-class definition I thought I was a success. I have an amazing, beautiful wife and two incredible sons. At 41 I’m relatively healthy and would rather be trying on my feet than succeeding on the couch. Then something happened. My cruising crashed.
This past spring I signed up for my usual races. First was Pick Your Poison at Horseshoe Valley in Orillia; a race I usually do well at. Last year I demolished the Seaton Soaker and was happy to sign up for it again. I also signed up for the Limberlost Challenge in Huntsville, which my wife and I both ran (while she was pregnant!) several years ago and thought I would enjoy.
Then reality happened. My wife – who I admire, respect, and most of all, love – began to question our marriage. The warning signs were there and I just didn’t see them, but my running apparently did.
Of the four 25k’s at Pick Your Poison I’ve run this year was my second worst time. I felt good after and enjoyed my experience, and initially chalked it up as a success, but the reality was I was happy just cruising.
My time at the Seaton Soaker – which was run in much better conditions than last year – was almost 10 minutes behind. Again, I felt good, was able to drive home without pulling over to massage a seizing calf, and probably banged out 10k the next day. Despite not pushing I was OK with that result. Why? Because I was cruising.
Then Limberlost happened. Rather, it didn’t happen. My wife and I were at a horrible place, and to her credit she urged me to go run. ‘It will help clear your head; it will give me some space,’ she said. I didn’t listen. My training was terrible and my mindset was worse. A night away and talking running with the trail community – just being excited about something, anything – was exactly what I needed. Still, I decided not to go. I haven’t even bothered to look at the results because I know my name isn’t even close to the middle. It’s in the sad group of losers at the very end that didn’t even try and fail – ‘earning’ them a dubious DNF (Did Not Finish) – but rather an even worse distinction: DNS (Did Not Start).
When it came to that race, I wasn’t even brave enough to fail, and of the many things I will regret come the end of my life this might very well rank near the top. Why?
Because at that moment I didn’t know who I wanted to be, other than someone who was afraid.
The concept of running for 28 km on a trail is simplicity at its best. Get excited, feel a bit of pain, let the nature high settle in at about 10k, come through the first lap with a smile, and then let that well-earned love carry you home. This year I had no love, and was certain I would run the entire race with a heart and mind full of the weakness that should only be reserved for the darkest moments. I’ve run through those moments before because something – someone – amazing was at the finish line. This time I translated “go run” as ‘go away,’ and no matter how prepared I might have been for the race there is no way to be prepared for that.
My first attempt at a run after was short-lived. I could barely run 5 minutes before self-doubt crept in – “Are you a good enough runner? Are you a good enough man?” I would shake those thoughts away to get in a few more minutes and they would quickly return to seize my legs more than any cramp I’d ever had before.
As a runner I realized I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn those cramps; the ones that numb you to the point of pulling yourself from the trail. Have I worked hard enough as a husband?
The next run was better. I still couldn’t find the flow I needed but I could appreciate the world outside of my head for the first time in weeks. The trees offered shade. I felt pleasure slipping in mud. I attacked an uphill rather than let it beat me before I started. Sweat living in my singlet smelt pure. This was the way I wanted to feel again, and I was terrified of its impossibility. To a degree maybe I still am, but I now know that I can at least try to work through it.
Since my no-show at Limberlost I thought I could redefine a DNS. People ‘Do Not Start’ for simple reasons. They couldn’t get a ride, their kid got sick, their alarm didn’t go off. I ‘Did Not Suffer.’ Shouldn’t that be worth something greater? I didn’t want to feel the pain of inner turmoil for 28 km. I knew I couldn’t handle a poor performance in a race at exactly the point of my marriage potentially failing. I should be allowed to be good at something, and being unsuccessful at two of the things I love the most at the same time would have been too much to bear.
The act of love and running might be the two simplest things – most human things – a person can do. Our brains and bodies are designed for both, and through both we should be able to live a pretty good life. And in that I realize that not suffering in that race was the easy way out, because I have been suffering with each step, each breath, each restless night, for several months now. Putting two feet in front of one another should be simple, but when being assaulted by every negative thought one could have in just walking from the house to the car how can it be?
Last week I turned the tables. I assaulted my suffering and would not allow it to take breath. I went to my local trail – in the middle of a tornado warning no less – to put in 12 km of pure uphill switchbacks with a ripper downhill to finish off. Arriving at the trailhead I wasn’t surprised to be the only person: I should have been home boarding up my windows. It still wasn’t raining and only fear was going to keep me from running.
No matter what happens, I’m no longer afraid. I can run and I can love and I will not allow myself to cruise to contentment in either any longer.
I started in a different direction than usual to distract from familiarity. My legs felt that comfortable strain that trail runners know as normal for the first time in weeks. As I attacked the first uphill part of me said, ‘hold back, hold back.’ No chance. My assault was unlike anything I had ever done in a race, and there was no one for 10 km in either direction of me to beat. Then it started to rain. Lightly at first and then with the ferocity that should have kept me home in the first place, but I was undeterred. These trails were perhaps the only familiar place in the world to me at that moment and nothing was scaring me off. I would not cruise back to the parking lot.
I screamed at the top of hills. I roared on downhill switches that drove knives into my quads. I felt alive for the first time in a month. I had no thoughts of my wife and our amazing sons, and no thoughts of an uncertain future. I wasn’t suffering. I was living.
My last few runs haven’t lived up to that, but they haven’t been sabotaged by insecurity and doubt either. I just know that when I run I’m not suffering. I still have long nights and I still have fear, but I’ve retaken the trail as a place where I can feel something other than… that.
I’ve realized I’m not running away from anything – that’s too easy. I don’t even think I’m running towards something, because that’s a decision that involves more than me and the way I hope things turn out. I like to think I’m running for something, which is a sense of self that will make me the better runner and the better man I need to be.
Then it comes back: Who do you want to be?
Like I said, I thought I had that figured out, but it’s clear I still don’t know that answer. Running atop a hill in a thunderstorm with my most primal screams challenging the onslaught of rain and lightning might have been the first steps to finding out. I only hope that whoever I find will be someone worth running for.