Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why I Run

But struggling and suffering, as I now saw it, were the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not constantly demanding more from yourself—expanding and learning as you go—you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip. -- Dean Karnazes
Recently I have been debating a few buddies about purpose, passion, and inspiration in life. And the conversation has focused primarily on the workplace and our jobs. Like many people, work has become a real source of frustration and energy drain. Is it because the unusual and hard circumstances facing the middle class?  Or, perhaps, it is because the three of us happen to be at similar stages of life and are reaching dissatisfaction at the same time? I'm not sure and I don't think it really matters.

Our debate has heightened with the death of Steve Jobs because he is famous for inspiring people and credited with "never working a day in his life". And while I think that is a great thing to aspire to, I'm not sure it's something that everyone can expect in their life.  In fact, it is my opinion that we sometimes glamorize other peoples' lives because they seem better than our own.  Here are a few reasons why I don't think that Jobs' life is for everyone:
  • Not everyone has the risk profile, creative mind, or entrepreneurial spirit that Steve Jobs possessed
  • If you've ever read Outliers, then you have to give some credit to the idea that our success is determined by factors we don't control
  • For every entrepreneur, there simply have to be thousands of others that make a business work.  The majority of those people cannot have the autonomy and power needed to love their job the way he did
  • This entire argument is based, at least to a degree, on the idea that we all measure success by bank accounts and stock options
  • This line of thinking almost dismisses the idea that Steve Jobs had tough periods in his life
  • Even people that love their jobs occasionally succumb to the pressures and have it feel like "work"
So what does this have to do with running? Well one of the main reasons that I run is to find inspiration, passion and happiness in my life. If you have read my story, then you know that I used to be just another member of the heard. My long journey through running has lead me to places I never thought when I started. I am not just a freak of nature born with superior running skills. The early years of running were difficult as I struggled with weight and motivation. Earlier this year, I struggled with very bad knee tendinitis that had me questioning whether my goals for the year were even possible. Here I am more than 10 years later -- down 65 pounds -- and finally starting to understand what it means to live a healthy life.

This summer I decided to run my first ultramarathon. When I signed up to do it, it had nothing to do with inspiring myself or anyone else. The primary reason I signed up was to have a BIG challenge to train for. Somewhere along the way things changed. I was getting stronger and healthier every time I ran.  It became effortless and fun. All my personal best times began to fall with ease. And it was all because I worked hard at it. There was a direct link between my hard work and  the results. How often does that happen in corporate America?

And another funny thing happened, I inspired other people!  My daughter ran her first 10K with me (and finished in the top 10% of her age group by the way).  She spent weeks preparing for that race and has become one of the better runners in her school.  Later in the summer my kids both torched a 2K run in Marble, CO.  Before this year my wife pretty much hated running.  She ran two half marathons in under 2 hours each.  Countless other people that I know began asking me for advice about running.  My sister made the absolutely incredible sacrifice of flying out here for barely more than 48 hours just to be a member of my ultra crew.  Then she went on to run a darn good marathon of her own later in the summer.  I made numerous new friends and even enhanced some relationships with existing friends.

Those who run long are not freaks of nature. We are not a handful of chosen ones blessed with indefatigable muscle and indestructible cartilage. Nor do we have indomitable willpower that others lack. If anything sets us apart it is a kind of sensitivity. We can hear a faint chord vibrating on old and brittle strings. It begins to resonate through us when we rise predawn for a morning run. The sound builds the longer we stay at it. On a long run through the mountains our attention becomes focused, in tune, automatic. Each footfall and each breath synchronized with a primal tune. Ours is a re-creation of once necessary dispositions. -- Powell, Bryon. Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons

The other beautiful thing about running -- running long in particular -- is that each run is a microcosm of life.  There are almost always parts of the run where you struggle and have to preserver. There is a constant struggle to balance between enjoying the moment and pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone. We learn to embrace and overcome pain and weakness.  If you run with friends, the ups and downs are evident in your interaction with one another. During period of the run you are joking, teasing and really enjoying one another's company. And at other times you are too busy struggling to say a word.

The week before my ultramarathon I developed a virus that caused me to run a 101 degree fever. And, for reasons still unclear to me, I had terrible stomach discomfort that kept me from eating and drinking the last three hours of my run. The competitor in me wishes that those things had not happened because they ruined my chances at reaching my goal time. But the human side of me wouldn't change a thing because I learned so much about myself on that day. Everyone has a story, but those that involve struggle and sacrifice make for more gripping theater.

Those of us that look for passion and meaning in life in our work are likely to come up empty more often than not. Perhaps people are living lives that are too comfortable. As part of a modern industrial society, we have many conveniences in our lives. But I believe the true beauty in life is overcoming adversity and finding a way to enjoy the journey. Running appeals to me because it is such a simple sport and it reveals your character in raw form.

As I close this, I want to leave you with a video shared with me by a running friend.

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