Suppose you are looking for inspirational stories, motivational quotes, or personal mantras to strengthen your mental game. In that case, a quick google search will lead you to countless quotes on grit, perseverance, and toughness. I, too, am inspired by these quotes and share them with others when I am about to challenge myself, and if you stick around this next week while I am getting ready to race 100K in the desert, you will see this in action.
So much in our running culture glorifies the grind and stubbornly pushing past all obstacles. The focus on grit and suffering has helped some people (myself included) exceed self-limiting beliefs and accomplish more than they ever could have imagined for their lives. This mindset can be good, but it also has a dark side that we don’t often consider. Some in our sport glorify this “toughness and staying hard” at all costs. When we become set in this mindset, we become very rigid, and if we push past what’s wise without flexibility, we risk burnout and injury. I would argue that this mindset of “staying hard at all costs” comes at the price of not attending to things that are screaming out for our attention. We would be better off listening to our body when it’s telling us to rest or heal and learning the value of leaning into the good that comes from backing down and knowing when enough is enough. The hard work is knowing when to back off, not blindly pushing through.
As I have gotten older, I have learned it is not helpful to think in terms of “either/or” thinking and being. For example, we must approach life by being “hard at all costs” or approach life by being “open, soft, and vulnerable at all times.” Black-and-white thinking is dangerous, and the truth is that life is more complex than that and requires flexibility to be able to roll with the ups and downs that come our way. To assert that no matter what happens in a race, we must soldier on is not a helpful way to be if we want to remain in the sport for a long time. Similarly, quitting at every inconvenience will not lend to longevity or resilience. There must be a nuance in our decisions. We must develop our gauge for understanding whether we are facing a challenge that is good for us to work through or one that will set us back because we were too stubborn about holding on to an idea of what we think makes one a ‘true runner.’
In 2008, I volunteered at the Hardrock 100 and was blown away by what I saw at the mile 93 Aid Station. I watched the front-runner Kyle Skaggs (on his way to an unbelievable course record and winning by six hours) blaze past with barely a sip of coke, run with ease, and make the whole thing look effortless. Watching him cruise past us with a smile made me think that maybe ultra-running wasn’t that crazy. It seemed possible and even fun. However, as the hours passed and runners came through our aid station, I saw another story playing out with those in the back of the pack. I observed a man fall into the chair by the bonfire rambling on nonsensically about the creatures he saw out in the darkness, and another runner pinned to the mountainside, flashing her handheld lights in an SOS pattern as she needed help getting down. People were in all stages of decline and distress at this point in the race, not abnormal at mile 93 of one of the hardest 100 milers out there, and both of these runners carried on and finished the race. These two endurance racers were undoubtedly proud of their respective races when they had plenty of opportunities to test their resilience. These challenges can arise at every ultra marathon and illustrate what it takes to “push on” past what feels comfortable. Drawing upon grit and toughness made all the difference in reaching a well-earned finish line.
Fifteen years after my Hardrock 100 volunteer experience, in 2021, I found myself running as the second woman at the Quad Rock 25 in Fort Collins, Colorado. The previous year, I had won the race while setting the female Masters course record and was aiming to go hard again to see if I could better my time. I went into the race planning to work on my downhill running and wanted to be more fearless. I chased the leader hard until I landed wrong and felt my ankle explode. I wondered whether the noise I heard was a stick I stepped on or my bone. I stopped and thought about what I should do, knowing I still had one long trail mile to get to the next aid station. I hobbled in, crumpled into a chair at the aid station, and called Mike to come and get me. As I sat there, the aid station volunteers encouraged me to continue and push through the pain “because no one ever wants to DNF. ”
Could I have carried on for the remaining 15 miles to finish the race with my ankle now the size of a grapefruit? Maybe. Would some people choose to do so? Absolutely. In this case, it was clear that the wise thing to do was to call it done and switch gears to recovery (it turns out I had snapped my lower fibula, and my racing season came to an abrupt halt in a moon boot). My injury was unfortunate as it was May and the start of our last summer in Colorado before moving to New Zealand, and I had a big race season planned. However, I have learned and am still learning that when life screams out at you to stop and pay attention, regardless of how you view the timing of things out of your control, it is best to slow down to listen and respond with thought and care.
That summer, as my body healed, the unfortunate end to my racing season brought many unexpected gifts. I got to ride my colorful bike cruiser (that I had ironically purchased second-hand the day before Quad Rock) around Lake Powell, paddle-board with my daughter on Lake Mary in Mammoth Lakes, and take my first steps back to running in Leadville that same summer. Later that year, I ran and competed in some incredible races in New Zealand, getting the best out of myself with a healthy body and even better fitness. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.
I have read in sadness and sometimes even anger the story of one renowned runner who boasts about his ability to run through pain and injury. I have my theories psychologically on why he lives his life out loud, glorifying the hardness he appears to bring to all aspects of his public life. I understand how many of us who have made incredible transformations find it valuable and almost mandatory to share our philosophy on what it takes to live a worthy life. I respect the inner strength and courage it takes to reinvent oneself and the dedication to shed patterns of addiction and self-loathing. What I find less inspirational is the one-dimensional message: to be tough, we must ignore our body’s signals and never back down. While it is this athlete’s priority to finish and stay in it at all costs, I worry that these stories of “bravery,” “suffering,” and “never backing off” send an unhealthy message to those in our sport who are still trying to find their way and figure it all out. I wonder if they may feel “weak” if they make different choices when faced with injury or may be in danger of harming themselves. I believe that we are better off training ourselves to learn the difference between pushing past discomfort when it’s solely discomfort (as that’s often where the good stuff lives) and pushing past when we are bordering on obsessiveness and doing something solely to prove that we can. I encourage all runners (and humans) to do the work required to understand our limits and work out when it’s safe to test them. Stay healthy out there. Running is a heck of a lot more fun when we are.