Winning doesn’t matter. At least, not in the way we are often led to believe.
Here is what’s ironic: Once I actually started to believe that winning didn’t matter is when I actually started to perform better. More importantly, I was a happy runner and a happy person.
While I am usually a private person and keep to myself, I felt like the things I dealt with, and continue to deal with, are ubiquitous among people in the OCR and running communities. I don’t have all (or many) answers, but I hope that through this mini novel you can learn from my mistakes. I am not here to tell you that my life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows (it’s frequently mountainous), but it sure is a heck of a lot better than it used to be. So if winning doesn’t matter, what does? In order to properly answer that question, I have to start back at the beginning of my personal running journey, at the end of 2014.
The real reason I started running, and one I didn’t feel comfortable sharing until recently, was that I was looking for an escape from a deep and dark place. A place some people call depression. I will spare you all of the details (or you can read about some of it at The OCR Report, by clicking HERE.) but it started when one of my good friends and mentors, Jiwon, committed suicide a couple days after I saw her. A deep level of sadness is expected after an event like this, but it definitely went beyond the normal grieving phase and into a mental place that I do not want to revisit. It was dark, and it persisted. I followed in Jiwon’s footsteps as the president of the American Student Dental Association (ASDA), and felt like needed to look strong for everyone else around me. I thought having something to focus on would help. Even better, something to push me past the point of exhaustion would exercise (or exorcise) those demons out of me.
So I decided to run the craziest race I had ever heard of up to that point: World’s Toughest Mudder. I set out for 50 miles and the coveted Brown bib in my first attempt at WTM. After what I can only describe as a humbling and struggle-bus-filled 24 hours, I limped across the line to my 50 miles. It was an incredible feeling and one that outlasted the lactic acid build-up in my legs and bruises on my body. What started with an “I’m never doing that again” quickly turned into the question, “When is the next race I can pay to run through mud, carry heavy things, and destroy my body?” I was hooked!
I spent the better part of the next two years loving racing and running hard. A product of a new stimulus combined with rapid improvement, it was hard not to love. My purpose was found in constant improvement and loving the community I was now a part of. It was enough to keep those demons locked inside and suppressed. All of that running, racing, and improving seemed to work. A newfound purpose and structure in daily routine, striving for a bigger goal was just the antidote I needed. Most people outside of the OCR community didn’t understand, but they didn’t need to. As long as they accepted it, or at least tolerated it, I was okay. It was easy to stay on such a high because I was improving by the day and having so much fun doing it.
Then WTM 2016 happened. I don’t think anyone, including myself, saw it coming: 100 miles!!!!
In three years I doubled my mileage at WTM from 50 in 2014 to 100 in 2016. I finished 3rd overall and was ecstatic about my result (see, I told you I was making a lot of progress). It was a seemingly perfect race and I felt like I raced beyond my capabilities.
In hindsight, it was both a blessing and a curse. Not because of the 100 miles itself, but what transpired afterwards.
My joy and satisfaction from racing was quickly destroyed. Following the coverage of WTM on CBS, people close to me clearly showed their disappointment, all because a lack of time on television. I thought that they would be happy for me, seeing as I had an out of body 24 hour race, one that I was proud of. Television was their barometer of success instead of my personal fulfillment and I did not meet that standard. The hard thing is if you are told enough times that it was a disappointment, you start to believe it yourself. People who I thought would always have my back seemed to pull away their support in search of more time on television.
The hard thing is if you are told enough times that it was a disappointment, you start to believe it yourself.
The ironic thing is I actually enjoyed the coverage of the race. Seeing Atkins and Albon cruise to victory while Trevor and Austin battled it out in the final miles made for great stories. Apparently, this wasn’t sufficient for others. To be honest, I never cared about being on TV until the thought was placed there by others. I started to believe that if I wasn’t the person on the screen, I was nobody. What was once my reprieve from my internal struggles quickly became another source of it. Racing took on a whole new meaning, and not a good one.
That was 2017 for me. I was training day in and day out simply for the result, hoping that it would lead to media coverage. Nothing else mattered in my mind. I kept pushing my physical limits, unhappy with my previous results, which only led to multiple injuries and a pre-stress fracture in my foot. I was lucky to catch it early, but it still meant a month of no running. Needless to say my sense of self-worth took a dive. I was a runner in search of better results, only to be stuck in a rut.
I went to Toughest Mudder Midwest, still stuck in a bad place mentally and planning on crewing for friends. In the lead up to the race, I contemplated racing after taking the previous month off of running to let my foot heal. I was confident that my foot had healed, but was worried about another sub-par performance. I was scared that if I tried to run and didn’t meet other people’s standards, I would be failing. Thankfully a good friend of mine, Joel Forsyth told me, “No one cares about your results, they only care about you.” That was just what I needed to hear, starting a cascade of thoughts and decisions that led me to a new place mentally. There would always be people there to criticize me, but their opinions didn’t matter. I was set to crew that night at Toughest Mudder Midwest but instead decided to run, not for anyone else, but for me. It was for the joy of running! Somehow it was my best performance (in terms of placing) for the year and it was definitely the happiest I ran all year!
I was still battling little injuries throughout the remaining year but was healthy enough to run World’s Toughest Mudder on a relay team. I enjoyed the race, and again was plagued by disappointing people around me who expected TV time. In my mind, it was time to move on. I couldn’t care what these people thought anymore. It was hard, because the people who I expected to have my back were the ones most critical of me. They didn’t understand running this race, and simply equated publicity with success, with no regard to how I was actually feeling.
I needed a change of pace in 2018. I was reminded of a statement that Theodore Roosevelt so eloquently said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
In need of a new perspective in 2018, I started reading and listening to those much smarter than me for inspiration. I was reminded of the importance that purpose plays in every aspect of our lives. While I often thought of purpose in the context of life and leadership, it didn’t carry into my running in the same way. But purpose is the foundation for the miles we put in. In fact, purpose carries us from the couch, out the door, and into the freedom held beneath our legs. We can only understand the true power of purpose if it is rooted from within, far beyond a race result. I thought back to my first start line where I heard the phrase “Nobody is better than your best,” from Sean Corvelle. That was it! I always want to be my best, but more importantly, I knew I wanted to inspire others to be their very best! So this became the core of my running journey. While the day to day self-dialogue may change, my purpose remains. It is the foundation for any of my success.
As I continued to look for further insight into the mental side of training, I stumbled across a new concept to me. It was an idea that the process, or journey, is more important than result or destination. It was a concept contrary to what had been ingrained in my head my entire life. I was led to believe that attaining specific goals or results I set out to accomplish would make me happy. Yet somehow every time I reached a goal, I was met with fleeting fulfillment. With the disappointment of past success in mind, I opened up to this idea of “process”.
The premise is that we spend 99% of our lives in pursuit of a goal only to enjoy our success for 1% (or less) of the time. Therefore, if we strive for the less than 1% at the expense of our personal joy and fulfillment, we are destined for disappointment, despair, and despondence. Alliteration aside, it is a less than enjoyable way to train and to live. We can only control so much, and sometimes sh%t happens on race day (or in life) that is out of our control. We put in so much work for a moment that escapes us and define it as disappointment.
Instead of constantly looking to some future event or result for joy and fulfillment, I found it in the everyday grind.
So I started to focus on loving the process of training. This is where the magic happens. Instead of constantly looking to some future event or result for joy and fulfillment, I found it in the everyday grind. I focused on heading out the door with a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to run and train in order to be my very best. Instead of a chore, training was a gift. I focused on events that would give me more fulfillment instead of what people expected me to do. The funny thing about this is it helped my training rise to the next level because I loved the training itself. Shifting my focus from my results to the process actually led to better results. Even if it didn’t, my daily mindset improved. As a Type A person who was always striving for the next goal, I found a reprieve in the process. It was all because of a simple change in perspective.
As 2018 started to unfold, I tried my hand at a few ultramarathons. It was a new and intimidating adventure for me, but I didn’t focus on the results, instead enjoying the event itself. The races turned into a celebration of all of the hard work I put in during training. Even though things were looking better than 2017, not everything was sunshine and rainbows. It was clearly evident that you will never satisfy everyone when I was asked after Toughest Midwest if I was disappointed with a 2nd place finish (to Ryan Atkins), which up to that point was my best race ever. Thankfully, I was in a better place mentally to realize that these were not the people I wanted to associate myself with. They epitomized Theodore Roosevelt’s critic, unwilling to step into the arena, but quick to point out any weakness in others.
Sadly, the critics in our lives aren’t exclusively found behind a keyboard, but present in everyday life. As hard as it may be, sometimes you have to learn to ignore these people. So I made the conscious decision to surround myself with people who will support me in my journey. This was one of the big reasons why I decided to move to Colorado. I was tired of the negativity surrounding me before and needed a new group of people who would lift me up rather than pull me down. While Colorado has its obvious benefits to train at, the less obvious benefits include a community of people who strive to be better and support my efforts. They help make me a better person and support my crazy adventures. As I moved to Colorado, my life has definitely changed. I surrounded myself with people who support my crazy adventures and who don’t continuously pull me down. And it doesn’t hurt having the massive playground known as the Rocky Mountains to help fuel the fire.
Focused on my personal purpose, the joy of the process and by surrounding myself with positive people, I found myself in a new place, limbo-ing under the finish line and on top of the podium. To be honest, these things are great, but they aren’t fulfilling. I didn’t expect them to be. I love doing well, but being stoked with the process of training is the true win. I am sure people will look at me differently and give me more kudos because I won, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is I am content with my training, myself, and those around me. I wasn’t focused on winning, but it just happened, and I am grateful. But it isn’t the point. The point is finding joy in the process, my own personal journey.
If you have weathered this lengthy article, thank you! But now the real work starts. I want you to examine your training and your life. Where is your focus at? Are you blindly striving for a fleeting goal, or have you committed to growth and loving the process. It makes for a much happier athlete (and person) and one that is more likely to get out of the door every day. Not every day will be easy, but by having a purpose and focusing on the process, I am convinced we can all be better athletes and better people. So be sure to love yourself, love others, and love the process!