A Story of Courage, Commitment, and 26.2 Miles

This is Sonya Harrington, and she is a marathoner. Sonya (1)

Of course, that wasn’t always the case for Sonya. Just 7 short months ago, she showed up at a Fall Marathon Informational Meeting at Fleet Feet Sports in Schererville, Indiana to gather details on what it would take to complete 18 weeks of training to prepare to run the Chicago Marathon.

Many “would be” first time marathoners come to these meetings, but after seeing the intense amount of training that is required to successfully complete a marathon…never come back – only Sonya did come back, and that is where her journey began.

Continue reading “A Story of Courage, Commitment, and 26.2 Miles”

The Night Before the Marathon

I know that you all have a thousand thoughts running through your heads right now. Some thoughts are good and positive, some are not. Regardless of the thoughts in your mind, there are some things that you know for certain. You have spent more than 4 months training for this day. 

You ran through adversity in the form of heat, humidity, rainstorms, sickness, soreness, and even injury. You did that because you are strong and determined individuals with BHAG’s. What are BHAG’s? BHAG’s are Big Hairy Audacious Goals!

You aren’t like other people. You are not content to simply exist in a lifetime of easy contentment. You have something inside of you that drives you to challenge and push yourselves well beyond what most people would ever attempt. 

There is something inside of every one of you that pulls and tugs at your soul. It’s what drives you out of the door every morning before the sunrise and it’s what will get you across that finish line tomorrow. It’s the Spirit of the Marathon. It does not exist outside of you; it is woven into your inner core.

The marathon chose you because it knew that you were special; that you have the toughness, the desire, and the will to complete an act of unrealistic ambition and expectation. You are not lining up at the start line tomorrow by happenstance. Each of you are here for a reason; a reason known only to you and the Spirit of the Marathon. 

Tomorrow, just as in training, you will be tested time and time again, and you will find a way to overcome everything that these 26.2 miles could throw at you. The path that you have chosen for this day is full of hazards, as all paths are; but it is a path that is most aligned with your character and your courage. 

Because of these things, you will never choose the easy path of submission or surrender. You will line up tomorrow aided by the spirits of millions of marathoners who have gone before to light the path and to prepare the way for you. 

Tomorrow, you will own a piece of history and whether for the first time or the twentieth, you will forever be called a Marathoner!

Why Rock Bottom is Never the End

“Those who can bear all can dare all.” – Luc De Clapiers

Have you ever wondered what life would be like if we lived as if we had nothing to lose? If you woke up tomorrow with nothing and had to start all over again, could you pull yourself up by the bootstraps and start building again? Everyday would be bound by struggle and each step would be a leap of faith into the next. Does the though of this scare you or does it ignite your senses?

Most of us have grown so accustom to our lives of luxury that just the thought of losing our sense of comfort sends us into a panic. Of course, no one would willingly choose to throw away comfort for gloom and despair but what if it wasn’t a choice? What if it was all taken in the swiftness of a sudden dark wind?

“If you’re going to die, then die. If you’re going to live, then fight.”   – Emilie Autumn

History is filled with giants of success who became that way only after hitting rock bottom, or being born into it. Oprah Winfrey was born to a young, low-income mother and was abused throughout her childhood. She was fired from a local television station because she was “unfit” for work on television.

Martha Stewart was the world’s first female self-made millionaire. Only a few years after her firm went public, she was sent to prison for 5 years because of her involvement in a stock scandal. Her story could’ve ended there but it didn’t. After being released from prison, she went back to work and within 12 months, her company was again profitable.

“I don’t think of myself as a poor deprived ghetto girl who made good. I think of myself as somebody who, from an early age, knew I was responsible for myself, and I had to make good.”   – Oprah Winfrey

After finding success as an actor late in life, Liam Neeson lost his wife to terrible skiing accident. He was left alone to cope with his two young children. Instead of cashing it in, Neeson regained his senses and his career by pouring himself into raising his children and soon regained his stardom as a premier hollywood icon.

For Neeson, Winfrey, and Stewart, and a plethora of others, both famous and common people, rock bottom wasn’t the end, it was the beginning. Rock bottom strips away the facade and exposes us to our very core. There is absolutely nothing left to hide behind. We are forced to look at our life for exactly what it is, both good and bad. The decisions and circumstances that brought us here become painful lessons, which if allowed, can help us to begin rebuilding.

In these moments we have no choice but to be humbled. It is in this humility that we ultimately find out who we really are. It forces us to find the strength within us that we no longer thought we had. We become self-reliant and we begin to see things for what they really are. We cease depending on externals for our happiness and ultimately become aware that everything that we need is already within us.

“Endurance pierces marble.” – Moroccan Proverb

Lastly, we become grateful for everything that is left because all of the phony has been removed. We realize that there is nothing left to lose and because of that we are free to dare, create, move, and experience life like never before. Just as failure is often a prerequisite for success, rock-bottom can also serve as a launching pad for better, more vibrant life.

Someone Told Me I’d Never Be…

“You’ll never be an endurance runner because you’re too big”. 

I love to lift AND I love to run. When I started lifting less and running more, I told someone I wanted to be an endurance runner. I wanted to run marathons and ultra marathons. I wanted to push my body passed the point of breaking. I wasn’t content with just finishing them, I wanted to race them.

I’ll never forget the words of a fellow runner who told me, “dude, you’re not built for that…like a runner”. I was insulted but I held it in. I started to doubt everything. When I looked around, I saw a lot of lean but thin runners. 

I wanted to challenge the status quo that said skinny runners run fast and everyone else gets thrown into the misfit land of “joggers”. Since then, I’ve finished a marathon in 3 hours and 46 minutes, I’ve run 100k’s and didn’t come in last or even close to last. I will run a 100 miler and I will race it, but I won’t change who I am and what I love. 

I wasn’t born with a runners body, but I’ve made the most of what I have. That’s what we have to do…make the most of what we have. Strong is strong in any shape and size. Tell me I can’t and that’s exactly why I will.

Part 1: A Few Years, A Thousand Memories, and A Knock on the Door

A cold wind races against my face as I stand at the front door of my forever. It’s a wind that I have felt before but never quite like this. I fasten another button on the collar of my jacket and step out further into the frostbitten night. As I turn to face the reality of another snowy eternity of darkness, I can’t help but wonder how I got here. A decision here and a decision there and suddenly life swept me away to an unfamiliar existence. I never intended to end up here, yet here I stand.

The snow is now falling with the intensity of a well-purposed storm, intent on inflicting misery on anyone caught in its path. My hands wipe the wetness from the frosted glass and as I peer inside. I can see a dim light dancing in the hollow distance. I’ve never felt like an explorer, but this circumstance has pushed me past the realm of familiar and dropped me into an oblivion of exasperated uncertainty.

I often wonder if I could ever go back to the warm familiarness of yesterday. A place where things made sense and nothing seemed too burdensome. I was a kid with sunburned cheeks and dirty fingernails. I was curious about everything and confident of nothing. I had plans of grandeur and a raging fire within my soul. The world was open and my mind was free. That place isn’t too far; a few years, a thousand memories, and a knock on the door.

The snow is blinding now and my feet are soaked to the bone. I can’t stay out here much longer. I’ll not die in this place. I peer through the window again; it looks empty and cold. In the back room, the dim ember of light still struggles against the darkness. I decide to announce my presence to anyone who can hear.

“Hello!” No one answers.

Again I shout, “hello!”

Still no reply. A turn of the knob and the door creaks open with a rusty groan. It’s a small two room cabin. The interior smells like a damp campfire that was left to smolder in the rain. There is a small twin bed in the front room with a brown wool blanket tucked neatly into place.

In the far corner, I notice a stack of books next to an old leather recliner. The back room has a small kitchen with a camp stove, some open shelves and a few can-goods  scattered about the table. There is no sign of anyone here, yet I feel as though someone belongs here.

The cold, bitter wind makes itself at home as it pushes the front door open with a rush of energy. It frightens me in such a way that I fall into the stack of books that had been assembled with the neatness of a school librarian. The wind flutters through the open pages and I notice that the books are missing entire chapters. The pages hadn’t been ripped out but instead look as though they were purposely left out during the binding process.

As I stand to close the door, I am overtaken with a sense of loneliness and confinement. This place feels more like a prison than a home. I am exhausted but glad to be out of the cold. Now sitting on the edge of the bed, my mind races back to a time not too long ago when the world was open and my mind was free. That place isn’t too far; a few years, a thousand memories, and a knock on the door.

 

 

How Dark Is The Night

How dark is the night, how wounded the soul.
When light ceases to expose goodness and pain takes its toll.

How long shall I bear the weight of such a sharp and heavy load.                                               My strength cannot endure many more miles of this black and somber road.

My heart has grown weary and my face no longer hides its tone.
My mind is filled with apprehension and in this deathly silence, I am alone.

How dark is the night, how wounded the soul.
When light ceases to expose goodness and pain takes its toll.

Still I will continue on in spite of death’s furious moan.
With resilience as my master and strength that will guide me home.

Though the path ahead is steep and lined with jagged stone.
I will push forward with a confident stride, ignoring the pain that my years have sewn.

How dark is the night, how wounded the soul.
When light ceases to expose goodness and pain takes its toll.

Trying Hard To Be Myself In a World of Conformity

I’ve heard it 100 times and read it 1,000 more. Just be yourself. Well let me tell you something, that’s freakin’ hard!

Wake up tomorrow, shower and dress yourself, and step out of the front door like you don’t give a crap what anyone thinks. Walk to your car backwards. If you’re a dude, wear a pink shirt. If you’re a woman, hock a loogie right over the car window. Who cares, right? Just be yourself!

It sounds awesome but in reality, it’s scary and awkward and almost impossible. The truth is that most of us do care what others think and our actions in our daily lives cater to those imposed thoughts of not being good enough.

However, I know a few people who genuinely live like this everyday. They do and say whatever comes to mind without a single passing thought of what others might say or think. They live life on their own terms and I respect the hell out of them.

There are at least 18,000 books about it and millions of online articles that tell us to think outside of the box and live a life according to who we really are. It sounds so easy, yet it’s incredibly difficult. By the way, there really is no box.

The truth is that most of us care too much what others think. What will these strangers think of this shirt? What would my boss say if I told him that I didn’t agree with his idea? What would my neighbors think if I didn’t bring my trash cans into the garage immediately after the trash truck empties them? What if I don’t believe in global warming or evolution? What if they knew I voted for the other candidate? What if what if what if?!?

We can be people pleasers to the crowd and go along with the majority. We can be yes men or women to our boss and agree with every idea that they have. We can choose a life of indifference and stand for nothing OR we can live as though our lives stand for something…something more than opinions of others.

We can’t stop trying to walk our own paths. We need to continue to learn about ourselves and the world needs us to do the same. It’s not about being indifferent to the world around us or weird (even though weird can be fun), it’s about being different within the world around us. When we lose our identity, we also lose our reason for being here in the first place. Live your life on your terms, don’t be content to simply exist.

Inside the Mind of an Endurance Athlete

Endurance – the ability to continue with an unpleasant or difficult situation, experience, or activity over a long period of time.

Sounds simple, right? Some describe it as becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. Marathoners, Ultra Marathoners, Ironmen and Ironwomen, and others who push their bodies past the normal limits of exhaustion, for hours and sometimes days, are a truly unique breed of athletes.

“I’m a distance runner. I’ve been trained to keep going, even when it’s hard, when it hurts, when it sucks, when I don’t want to. I look past it. Relentless forward progress to the finish. Call it what you want; stubbornness, endurance, determination, guts. Deep down, I don’t know how to give up.”

Half of one percent of the U.S. population has completed a marathon (26.2 miles). Sounds crazy doesn’t it? It is, but think about foot races that cover 50, 100, 150, 200 miles, and more.

Then there are Ironman events which feature a 2.4 mile swim immediately followed by a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a full marathon. That’s over 170 miles back-to-back-to-back. Better yet, how about a double Ironman, or a triple length Ironman? Are you sensing the crazy yet?

These are distances that will keep athletes on their feet from multiple hours, to days at a time with little to no rest.

The average finish time for a 100 mile run is just over 28 hours. The average finish for an Ironman (140.6 total miles) is just over 15 hours. Some of the world’s best ultra marathoners will finish a 200 mile race in around 61 hours, while some of the mid-packers will come in closer to 85-90 hours. If your math is rusty, that’s about 3 1/2 days.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S. Eliot

When I say the words “endurance athlete”, it may bring to mind images of the most elite athletes, olympians and such but those aren’t the athletes that I am referring to. Sure, there are elite endurance runners who crush these races, but I’m actually talking about the everyday athlete. The men and women who have real jobs and families to support, who aren’t paid with endorsements. Those are the ones who inspire me because they are the ones who are up and out of the door at 4 or 5 am to log miles in the dark hours of the morning.

The majority of these people will never taste victory and stand on a podium at an ultra endurance event, yet they do it anyway. What sets them apart from the crowd? What drives them to put in the work for months and years on end, only to show up and place 40th in a field of 100?

As you might imagine, a large part of successfully training for and competing in endurance events is an extreme mental focus. Most everyday endurance athletes will tell you that there is nothing exceptional about their physical abilities, in fact many would not have considered themselves to be athletic as kids and young adults. It’s all about their mindset. They aren’t content with the status quo in most areas of life, which gives them an internal drive to push their limits over and over again.

Most endurance racers also have a higher than average pain threshold. I’m not talking in the sense of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not type of pain threshold, but they do have an innate ability to manage pain. When pain sets in, and it always does, they can deal with it in a way that allows them to continue on in spite of the burning pain coursing through their body. They are also able to ignore their mind when it is imploring them to stop.

“Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy;
the hard part is pushing yourself even further” – Rex Pearce

They are willing to take risks and are completely ok with possibility of failure. Signing up for an ultra marathon takes moxie, and lots of it. Showing up to the starting line and staring fear in the face takes more than that, it takes a bit of delusional confidence as well. It isn’t about arrogance, but it is about having a high level of confidence in yourself and a belief that you can accomplish seemingly impossible feats.

They are some of the most resilient and persistent people on the planet. They expect setbacks and even welcome them. Setbacks offer endurance athletes the chance to improve their mental and physical capacities. Every obstacle offers a chance for conquest.

“We had seen God in his splendour…. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
-Ernest Shackleton

They are able to maintain an intense level of focus for extremely long periods of time. Some people wonder what these athletes think about during these long bouts of competition. While that answer may differ from person to person, the prevailing answer is that they are focused on the task at hand. They are thinking about keeping the proper pace, ingesting the right amount of calories, staying up to date with their hydration levels, and remaining in tune with their body, only they are doing this over the course of hours or days.

They are okay with being alone with their own thoughts. As you may imagine, it can get lonely after awhile. Depending on the event, hours can pass without seeing another person and sometimes they are forging ahead into the cold, black expanse of nothingness…alone. If they weren’t comfortable being in a self-imposed solitary confinement, things could get really ugly (and sometimes it still does).

Sports Psychologist, Frank Farely says that “they tire quickly of everyday things, and their only remedy is to take on the next challenge, hoping for more stimulation.”

In addition to this assessment, Farley also commented that most of these athlete’s maintained similar characteristics in that they’re independent thinkers and methodical about goal-setting. They also tend to believe that they control their own destiny in the sense of successes and failures. They’re typically energetic and innovative, which is why so many are tend to be entrepreneurs.

“Ultrarunners understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being – a call that asks who they are.”  -David Blaikie

Endurance athletes are used to being called crazy, psychotic, and host of other names by those who don’t understand their passion.

They are a special breed, bound by the love of exploration of not only their body and mind, but also of this incredible planet that we call home. They consider moderation to be boring and therefore exhaust themselves in the pursuit of getting more out of life.

They’re entrepreneurs, doctors, school teachers, nurses, construction workers, CEO’s, and janitors. They are everyday people with an extraordinary mindset. Ultra-runners and endurance athletes are a rare and unique breed…and they’re okay with that.

You’ve Got Maybe 75 Years. What Do You Want From It?

It’s a great question and an interesting exercise. Most of us get so entirely consumed in the day-to-day stuff of life, that we never step back…like way, way back and ask ourselves the most important big picture type questions.

None of us are promised tomorrow, and many of us have eaten into a significant portion of that 75 years, but it’s still a thought worth pondering.

What do you want to accomplish with your life?

“It’s your road, and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.” – Jalaluddin Rumi

One thing I’ve learned from obsessing about what my life’s purpose should be is that no one can figure that out for you. It’s all part of the journey, which is why the quote above is one of my favorites. Our mistakes, our failures, and our successes all belong to us and that is what makes this life beautiful.

Sometimes life sucks and other times, it’s pretty freakin’ spectacular. None of it, good or bad, should be taken for granted…ever.

Life has to be about more than the nine to five. It’s so much bigger than our jobs, our cars, our houses, and our bank accounts.

It’s about making an impact…in some positive and meaningful way, we have to figure out how we can make an impact on the world around us by using our God-given talents and gifts; we all have them and we have them for a reason. They fit with our purpose in this life.

I am not going to give you a list of “things to make your life better”. Just ask the question, and really ponder on the answer, then start doing something today that will move you toward that answer.

So what do you want to accomplish with your life? It’s a question worth answering.

 

Coming Down: The Black Dog

Last weekend, the race that I had been training for came and went. Months upon months of training culiminated and evaporated into a single fantastic flash.

When I crossed the finish line, I was elated and I rode that unbelievable high for a few days. Now as the buzz is almost gone, I’ve already started thinking about what’s next.

Some refer to this come down as The Black Dog.


The phrase is often traced back to Winston Churchill who suffered from intense bouts of depression throughout his life. The phrase though, can be traced back well beyond Churchill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” – Winston Churchill

Churchill often referred to these depressive states as being visited by the black dog. Coming down so quickly from a life-changing event leaves you a bit breathless. It also leaves you a bit dejected and in search of your next high.

Something happens during the training that goes with endurance events. It’s almost unnoticeable while it’s happening, but somewhere during all of the miles, the trails, the rain, the snow, early mornings, cold winds, and the people who share all of these brutally glorious hours with you, something transforms your soul. You bond with people who share a love of endurance sports, you push past limits again and again.

It’s an amazing growth process that’s propelling you toward a demon that you must somehow conquer. All the while, there are doubts and there are fears but the thought of a new distance, of a new personal record, a new adventure in unfamiliar territory drives you harder and longer to keep going.

You find purpose and meaning in all of the craziness of this world. You become a friend to yourself and begin to actually like the person that you are. All of this, all of these moments replay in your mind during the race.

You think about the miles and the pain that you endured to get here. You feel the strength in your legs and the air in your lungs, all developed in those early mornings and late nights spent beating your body into a steel wheel.

It’s what gets you through; the training allows you to accomplish these amazing feats and then suddenly as you make the final turn to the finish, you hear the cheers, the clapping, and you see those who shared this awesome journey…and then in a matter of minutes, it’s over.


There are hours of relishing in the accomplishment and then as the cars leave the parking lot, and the voices fade, the black dog begins to pursue you. He knows that your spirit has been stripped bare.

At first, he’s only a faint shadow and then as the hours and days pass, his breath becomes audible and his eyes pierce the deepest recesses of your soul.

He pursues you with the thirst of a thousand deserts, waiting for a chance to sink his teeth into your heart. His growl becomes deeper and his footsteps quicken. If given the chance, he will drag you down to the depths of a black screaming abyss.

“Depression is such a cruel punishment. There are no fevers, no rashes, no blood tests to send people scurrying in concern. Just the slow erosion of the self, as insidious as any cancer. And, like cancer, it is essentially a solitary experience. A room in hell with only your name on the door.” – Martha Manning

In order to avoid the black dog, we start to look for the next challenge. From the outside, people think we are crazy. They think we’re adrenaline junkies. They can’t hear the black dog and they can’t see that he’s on our heels.

Some of us have been in that abyss and we will do whatever it takes to never return. The abyss is where we lose ourselves – where nothing makes sense – and where confusion infiltrates the calmness of our every thought.

I won’t go back there. I can’t. I’ll keep pushing forward with a relentless passion to escape the unpleasant aromas of a hollow life.