The last time I hooked up with Jimmy’s posse for a syncroblog topic, I talked a lot about losing some things (people, interests, etc.) from my pre-ultrarunning self. I spoke of the guilt I feel for this and perhaps positioned them as things I miss, and to a certain degree this is fact. But the truth is, I like myself better this way. I get more out of life, and the people and opportunities it has created are something I never would have imagined.
There are a lot of great stories out there about how running, and more particularly ultrarunning have saved a lot of great folks from the likes of addiction, depression, unhealthy habits and the works. For me, the reason why I have the things I mentioned above is because ultrarunning saved me from the worst kind of beast I could ever imagine.
To demonstrate, I give you my own story of how I got into distance running and my best attempt at brevity.
I started running cross-country and track in high school – 4’s and 8’s were my jam; I thought cross-country was WAAAAAY too long. Five kilometers?! For the birds. I suppose it was telling that the one thing I really loved about cross-country were the “nature runs” – days where we ran on trails. Anyway, eventually the competitiveness and pressure got to me, culminating in being tripped on my last big race my senior year and not going to state. My world had basically ended, and I now think I have a good reason why – but I’ll save that for the dramatic reveal. That’s how these blog things work.
For my next trick, I quit running forever – which basically meant that I still ran, but only to make sure I could drink beer and still look good in my sequin half tops (I was on my college dance team – the University of Missouri Golden Girls). In retrospect, I still looked pretty awful, but I think that was more related to wearing sequins and boots from the 70s.
Eventually, I met a boy, as many of us do in our sororal days, and eventually that boy “broke my heart” –as many of them also do. Towards the end of that “relationship,” I began searching for something else to make me feel great and wonderful and all of that shit, so naturally, I chose running a marathon. I’d show him and I’d show everyone. I’d also pass out on the Katy Trail out in McBaine, due to my lack of knowledge on eating or drinking on a 20 mile run in 105 degree heat and humidity steaming up from the river – but well, that was all part of the process I guess.
A week after the marathon, I was arrested for a DUI. A few weeks later, I discovered said boy with another girl in his bed. Within a few weeks of that, I was full on depressed. There are a million details surrounding that, but they are all inconsequential, considering that I believe I now know why I sought out all of those activities and relationships and the running I had now fully turned to.
The need for validation.
I loved running track, because I loved the way I felt when I won. When I was “the best” on any given day. I cracked under that very pressure to be the best when it became quite certain that I wasn’t the “absolute best” and likely never would be. After that, life became a coping game of discovering that I really wasn’t the best at anything and that all the hard work in the world wasn’t going to change that. I had believed in my heart that I could be anything, everything, and I was crushed to discover that by comparison, I felt to be nothing. Of course, I had no idea at the time, but suffice it to say that I had the general feeling of sucking at life.*
*I feel the need to add that this came ENTIRELY from within, and no one else was making me feel this way. I had probably the most supportive parents and family anyone could ask for and a lot of great friends who thought I was perfectly wonderful the way that I was.
Hence came the need to find things to validate me. To make me feel that I was enough and I was the most desirable in just one aspect of my life. Just one, dammit. That was dancing – and I failed. That was my college boyfriend – and I failed. So for awhile, I drank to forget. Mind you, I don’t actually think I drank anymore than any college kid – probably less – but my point is that I don’t really think my penchant for going out and boozing was just to have fun. In fact, I think there is a much deeper reason why many collegiates party hard, including, but not limited to alcohol, drugs and sex (but not rock and roll – rock and roll is always a good idea) – even though they’d think you were some crazy psych major if you ever mentioned it to them at the time. Myself included.
At some point along my short stint in depression, but after a long four years of self-hatred and self-doubt, I came to a realization that to this day I credit as the switch for all future self-discovery. So much so that I have a tattoo on my right wrist to serve as a constant reminder. It was simply this:
You always have a choice. ALWAYS.
What that meant at the time was that I was actively choosing to be miserable. I had become comfortable playing the victim and was too scared to try anything else, just to likely fail at “being the best” yet again. Also during this time I started to run a lot more, partly because my driving privileges had been revoked, but mainly because I really, truly loved it. The farther and harder I went, the more “validated” I felt. And I now fully understand why. The goals I was setting were related to me and me alone. I’ve never run this far before! I’ve never run this many miles in a week! I’ve never run up that many hills without walking! I had no one to compare myself to, and that was a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Of course, again, I didn’t know that at the time, which is why I continued to struggle with that lack of true belief in and satisfaction with myself for the next seven years or so. I moved to Los Angeles and toiled to prove myself as a writer and develop my career in creative advertising. I had been “one of the best” in my graduating class, but now I was just a small fish in a very, very big pond. And there were sharks in this pond. Lots of ‘em. I didn’t date much, and chalked that up to not being pretty or interesting enough for someone to be interested in. I was a girl from Missouri in LA, for chrissakes. I did continue running, however, and really was enjoying this marathon thing. Being “the best” was so far off my radar that just finishing and improving my time was fulfilling and worthwhile. In a way, running was what really kept me together and hopeful.
Ah, but eventually, I happened upon something more than a marathon – something farther and harder – and of course, that seemed like the natural progression for my self-worth meter. An ultramarathon. I had to try this and I had to complete this. A 50k, a 50miler… 100 freaking miles! I did them all, and I felt wonderfully whole upon each finish. I DID IT. And that was enough.
The only problem is, that I was kind of good at it. I was finishing towards the top, and naturally that competitive drive kicked in – if I could be the almost best on my first try, I could definitely be the very best with some more training! This was wonderful! I had found my calling.
Unfortunately, now, just doing my best and finishing was no longer enough. My sophomore race in every distance went exactly horribly. I finished feeling ashamed and angry at myself, rather than happy and accomplished. For the next few years, I never really felt satisfied. These feeling persisted in both my professional and personal life as well.
I began the year recovering from knee surgery, so being “the best” was again, so far removed from my reality it wasn’t even funny. That said, I went ahead and signed up for races – mainly because I had entered my name in some lotteries before the surgery – but still, I moved forward with just training the best that I could. I had missed being physically able to run all day, and the act of simply doing that was enough. Yes, it was enough. I had grown to love running in the mountains to that degree.
So here’s where I tell you how I had a year of setbacks, but mentally forged on and learned to be okay with that, right? Well… not exactly. My first race back was a 50k in March, and I won. Then I set a 50 mile PR on one of the toughest courses in the country. There was also a 100 mile PR and a 100 mile win and course record. In between all of this there was a kidney infection, a calf strain, a bout of giardia and some extreme adrenal fatigue. So what the freaking freak, right?
Well, if you look back at any of my race reports from last year, you’ll discover a common theme in that dramatic reveal I spoke of (which I’m getting to now, brevity again failed). In each and every race, I’d only set goals relative to myself. I approached each and every race as a first, and I ran as if I was alone in the mountains, rather than surrounded by hundreds either in front of or behind me. I did what I set out to do and I was happy in its truest form. That brand of validation came from within. Which I now understand is the only place from which it may truly exist.
Also in 2012, my relationship bloomed into the most wonderful, amazing partnership I’ve ever known. Whomever “they” are, they say that you have to learn to love yourself before you can love anyone else. While I hate all things cliché, this has become one of the truest things I have ever known. No other person or thing was ever going to fill that hole I had, and until I patched that shit myself, all I was giving anyone was a broken piece of crap. Now, I’m literally brimming with love so much so that my hugs can be lethal. I will literally squeeze the shit out of you.
What’s left is that I feel confident in my friendships. I feel confident in my career, although I’ll freely admit, I could stand to change some things in 2013 on that front. My life is not perfect and I’m certainly not the best ultrarunner, copywriter, cook or looking chick on the planet. But I’ll be damned if I’m not the best I’ve ever been. And while I have an innate drive to achieve more, which is the very thing that likely caused the previous demise of my own self-worth, I now understand how to harness that power and use it for good rather than evil. And here’s how I know that at 29 years of age, I finally get it:
Those wins I spoke of - the days where I was "the best?"
They didn't feel any different.
This photo represents me escaping the confines of my own twisted and fucked up brain.
(taken by a dude who has experienced this fully)
MORE MIND TRAVELS, FOR YOUR PLEASURE:
"History of Jimmy" Lesson - Jimmy Dean Freeman
Nathan's Journey of 22 Years - Nathan Coury
Ashley Ain't Frontin' - Ashley Walsh