THE ROAD TO MOAB
Let me paint a picture for you. Today is Tuesday… it’s snowing in Boulder, and it has been – pretty steadily – for several days now. Campus closed early today, enough snow having accumulated on the roads and sidewalks for administration to make the call. I got the email in my office, over coffee with a colleague.
I love this weather for two reasons. Reason number one: I am a master’s student at CU Boulder, which pretty much means that I get to go to school in one of the coolest places on Earth. What it also means is that I teach two undergraduate classes, carry a full course load, wait tables, and spend whatever time is left over… (you guessed it), training. Cancellations because of snow exponentially increase the “time left over” part of my schedule. Reason number two: A native Vermonter, I feel so at home in the cold and snow. It gives me an excuse to don my favorite hat, means that ski season is that much closer and is, well, BEAUTIFUL.
That email came about four hours ago… I’ve spent the last three or so studying for the comprehensive exams I have in two weeks – a full-day exam at the crux of my degree. I am a musician, and will be tested rigorously on the skills and knowledge I have been building for the last six years of my academic career. I am an athlete, too (don’t worry, you’ll get the pain-cave analogies and runner-community gushing you came here for), but before I was ever a runner, I was an artist… and what I really want you to take away from this blog post is not my pre-race routine or a shameless plug for my favorite shoes, but the challenge and importance of finding your passion(s) and striking a balance that allows you to pursue them.
I have had a lot of trail time to think this through, but my conclusions are still developing. There are two types of run that never fail to get me thinking: the really really great ones, and the ones that just fall apart. For me, the extreme good and extreme bad usually happen on speedwork days. I might fall apart on Tuesday, pull it together for a great Thursday tempo, and then digest the emotional rollercoaster that was my week on my Sunday long run. The mental exercise has yielded some amazing discoveries! Each time this happens, the same questions arise: Why do I push myself to include running in my life? Running is my passion, but why is it that pursuing my passions introduces such stress? Is it okay to have more than one passion? Is it possible to find balance?
To be honest, the jury is still out.
Fast-forward a couple weeks… to the day of the Moab Trail Marathon.
I took all of these questions with me to the starting line, which made me pretty nervous. I had only raced twice before, and both of those events were run with friends, practically in my backyard. I knew Moab was going to be different. I wasn’t matching pace with anyone. I hadn’t declared this a “just for fun” event. I wasn’t running simply to finish; I was running to see how well I could do… and just like all the questions posed above, I honestly wasn’t sure what was going to happen. The odds were not stacked in my favor based on my self-care for the past few weeks. With homework and waitressing, getting six (let alone the prescribed eight) hours of sleep in a night was near impossible. I had trained exceptionally well, and tapered diligently… but I was emotionally wrung-out. Yet going in to this race I had refused to let my expectations waver. I was going to crush it.
I had shifted my focus the previous night to get ready for today. In my mind’s eye, I saw everything going well. My legs were strong and my thoughts were peaceful. I tried to tap into those feeling here, now, at the start. I knew I needed to run for myself today. Even though it had been suggested to me as a source of power, I didn’t want to let the frustrations at school or other upheaval in my personal life fuel me… I wanted my motivation to be pure, which means I had to be enough. And while that’s not exactly how it ended up going, I can tell you that every moment of the 26.2 miles that day were inspiring.
The biggest point of departure from my “just run for me” plan happened early. Like, at mile 2, early. I crested the top of what had been a steady climb, and found myself looking down into a canyon. The sun was just peeping over the wall of red rock in the distance, and even its infant rays warmed the air considerably. There was a girl next to me who had stopped to shed a layer. I giggled. So did she. And then it was like that moment in the Grinch when his small heart grows three sizes, and the sky turns orange and then purple and then pink, and I realized that today was about so much more than me. Today was about every person running. It was about what got us all here. On a personal level, today was a celebration of the stress and the breakdowns and the breakthroughs and the pursuit of joy. I felt such a deep gratitude for the people around me and the people in my life that were supporting me.
It was at this point in the race that I started, without even really trying, to answer my questions. I absolutely can have more than one passion, and just because the demands that need to be met in order to improve at them introduce stress does not mean that it isn’t worth it to try. I will even take this one step further by saying that the stress I sometimes feel does not detract from the quality of my experience doing these things. I know we have all heard the “it’s all about the journey” speech and the “live in the moment” talks, and I will jump on that bandwagon… but I am going to do so cautiously.
As an athlete, there is so much emphasis on the destination: the goal/time/place/what-have-you. I live in this world in my academic life, too. The musician doesn’t have a PR to chase, but performance is like a race in so many ways. Every time I run or perform I am laying myself bare to the most intense kind of criticism. This is a result of saying, before the start, “I am going to do my very best, and what you see is a result of my most concerted efforts.” So the thing being judged is not only my performance in that moment, but also my performance based on everything I did to get there. And that, my friends, is terrifying. What is even more terrifying is the realization that no matter what result my best effort produces I need to own it. Because what is worse? Saying (after the fact) that I actually didn’t try my best, or admitting that my best is not what I wanted it to be?
Truth be told, my “best” is going to be different tomorrow than it is today. And when I say I want to live in the moment and cherish the journey, I mean that I want to be able to honestly say that I am proud of the results I produce not on the perfect day, not on race day, but on every day. No matter what they are.
The rest of the race was amazing. I did my best. I did better than I imagined I could, and I left it all on the course. I crossed the finish line at four hours and twenty-eight minutes, a solid hour faster than I had hoped. I placed eleventh overall for women, and fourth in my age group, which was enough to plaster an ear-to-ear grin across my face for the next few days. What I really took away from this race, however, was the realization that the road to a place does not have to be perfect to be valuable. There is no shame in there being the stress, unrest and bad days because odds are, if you are really pushing yourself, it’s going to be stressful. The key, I think, is embracing the stress. I will always strive away from it, but when it happens, I have found that the ability to dig deep and find the value in the situation and the grit in myself is greatest accomplishment of all.