"Never, never, never give up"
-- Winston Churchill
It was a beautiful drive into Morgantown this early morning as I enter into a weekend that is bittersweet for me. This coming Monday is the Boston Marathon and with it comes many thoughts and emotions. As the first month of my "running retirement" has gone by, I have had an opportunity to reflect on all that has transpired and to sift through the sands of time to see if there is any underlying message I can take with me into the next phase of my life. On my drive, I think I came across the message that is most important to me. So, the purpose of this blog post is twofold. First, it serves as a very succinct way of encapsulating my running career (and then I will shut up about it). Second, in so doing, it ties nicely into the message that came to me this morning.
|Front and center on my kitchen counter so I never forget.|
There was then a long period of physical and mental disrepair where I really didn't exercise nor run hardly at all. Through a combination of events that caused me to fully engage in introspection and to think about where my life was headed, I resolved to turn the ship around in all phases of the game -- mind, body, and spirit. July 26, 2001 ... my Independence Day, a subject of another post. I began to train in earnest, and I mean TRAIN train, all through 2001 and in the summer of 2002, I was able to complete the Bridger Ridge Run, a wicked hard, technical trail run of 20 miles through the Bridger Mountains of southwestern Montana. During the run, I fell on the backside of Saddle Peak and incurred an inguinal hernia but was able to finish the race, bloated manhood and all!
Living in Montana was pure joy. As the years went by, I exercised constantly and embraced the love of my life I knew as trail running. My diet dramatically improved. All through the mountains I hiked, climbed and ran, for hours and hours. Through Yellowstone, Glacier, the Madison's, Gallatin's, Bridger's, you name it. In 2004, I moved to Alaska where I had the opportunity to continue experiencing epic trail running. Perhaps my favorite local trail run ever was the regular jaunt up Wolverine Peak in the Chugach Mountains ringing Anchorage. Gingerly picking my way through the rocks, watching a band of Dall sheep off in a grassy basin, monitoring the swirling clouds drifting in off Cook Inlet ... for all those memories I will forever be eternally humble and grateful.
I moved down to Flagstaff, Arizona in 2006. Here, running was an exalted religion and I had no trouble whatsoever in hooking up with fellow high-altitude trail runners. During my two year stint here, I felt my running was improving considerably and so accordingly, I decided to step up the distance on my races. Once again, on a fit of impulse, I signed up for the brutal Zane Grey 50 Mile Endurance Run that ungulates along the Mogollon Rim of northern Arizona. It was very hard and challenging but I cannot convey how happy I was to complete it.
After moving to West Virginia in 2008, I continued to race distances racing from 50K to 50 miles -- Highland Sky, JFK, and Holiday Lake come to mind. Here again, my times continued to be middle of the pack, same as they had always been. Then, in early 2010, I had a PR 18th overall at Green Jewel 50K in northeastern Ohio. To me, this was surprising because I had always assumed that as I entered my mid-40's, I would slow down considerably. Motivated and encouraged by this result, I decided to train even harder. I purchased Pete Pfitzinger's "Advanced Marathoning", a book I consider one of the finest, if not the finest, references for marathon training, and read it over and over again. Then disaster struck.
In March of 2010, I raced in the Bel Monte 50 Miler in Virginia. Perhaps I was a bit full of myself and feeling rather blasé about my ability to finish ultras but Bel Monte sure caught me by surprise and kicked my ass with both feet. In the middle of the race, I fell on a root and snapped my ACL clean through. I finished the race and was even able to run for a couple more months before the pain became so unbearable that even my self-denial wasn't working. I don't want to dredge up in detail all that occurred from that point on because I have already described that in this blog. The point is this.
On June 9th, 2010, I felt completely defeated and that I would never race again. I had lost hope and had given up. Something so dear to me was gone and the thought of losing it filled me with sadness.
On this day, the wonderful Dr. Jack Andrish of the Cleveland Clinic graciously put my knee back together again and I faced an important decision, a decision I had to assume complete responsibility for. What was I to do? Should I just stop running or try to race again. To tell you the truth, I didn't know what to do until the answer revealed itself to me. I had recently gone on a run with a woman who gave me a copy of the book "Born to Run". Strangely, I never communicated with this person ever again but I believe our paths were meant to cross solely so that she could give me this book. Lying in bed at night after the surgery, I began to read it and hatched a plan. Like acorns morphing into oaks, the thoughts grew in my mind and I decided I was not only going to race again, but I was going to come back better than ever before. I told myself "You will qualify for the Boston Marathon and then run the Leadville 100 Miler." With these goals in tow, I constructed my life around accomplishing them. As previously discussed in this blog, what followed was months of intense rehab and training, morning, noon, and night. I hired a strength and swimming coach (Beth Byron) while Rob Acciavatti worked through many long sessions of physical therapy with me. My diet became even more strict, as I mapped out a long, jam-packed running plan. With each cone-drill, with the growing mileage, with the change of summer into fall, my determination grew. Having my friend Sarah, encouraging and supporting me every frigging step of the way, was just such a huge help and source of strength.
The swimming was really hard. Looking back through this blog, I can hardly believe I am where I'm at today. Not knowing how to swim, I was also so scared of the water I had a hard time getting into the pool much less swimming in it. Whether it was the prodding of my friend Sarah or the notion that swimming would be good cross-training while I rehabbed my knee, there I was with Beth in the kid's pool one morning learning to blow bubbles, starting at ground zero. I wish I could tell you that swimming came effortlessly for me but it did not. I quit it one hundred mornings at least, filling the natatorium air with F-bombs and storming into the showers in a huff. One unpleasant morning, I swam to the side of the pool and told Beth I was very discouraged and it was a wonder she didn't fire me. I'll never forget her saying, "I wouldn't fire you, Phil. You would fire yourself." Case closed! Do not give up.
|Thank you, Laurie Geller. I look at this every time I walk to my bedroom.|
Emboldened by this, I picked up my training even more and was consistently running a rigorous 70-80 miles a week along with plenty of cross-training. In April, I placed 4th overall at the Glacier Ridge 50K, in Pennsylvania and followed it up that same month with a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R) run crossing of the Grand Canyon (with Mike Frazier). In June, I ran an 8:44 at the Comrades 56 Mile Ultramarathon in South Africa and procured the Bill Rowan Medal. Later that month, I flew out to Leadville and practiced running the course in preparation for the race. Finally, in August, the Leadville race came and I ran a 21:36, 24th place overall. In my wildest imagination, never would I have ever thought I could have reached this far ... I could have run forever that magical night ... This happened because I never gave up hope that I would one day toe the line at Leadville and because I silently and patiently chipped away at this goal until I was convinced I could make it a reality. If I did it, you can, too!
I guess we know how the rest of the story plays out from here. There are times when I wonder if I pushed myself right out of running by pushing myself so hard last year. Perhaps. But I believe that is an oversimplification of the issue. Indeed, FAI has a congenital basis. And you know what? I wouldn't change a thing about the past! All unfolded as it was meant to unfold if for no other reason than to restore balance in my life. There is nothing remarkable at all about these races and times. I was a middle-of-the-pack runner who, through an enormous amount of hard work and determination, was able to start making forays into the top-of-the-pack at an age I had no business doing it at and despite a potential career-ending injury. Ultimately, here is how the script ends for me ... the last race, a 10K in March of 2012, was a PR and AG win ... having never taken a DNF in his career ... having never given up ... ever reaching ... ever pushing ... ever loving ... ever grateful.
There are definitely times, for a variety of reasons, you should give up and let go and, for what it is worth, I will discuss these times in a future post. However, in many cases, I believe people are capable of far more than they think. I believe we place suffocating limits on ourselves, whether it be through nature or nurture, and that we also sometimes allow others to place limits upon us. For some, giving up is really giving in; specifically, giving into a fear fueled by many complex sources. You can make a choice to fight or to flea, to be a victim or a victor. Real core victory comes from not giving up, believing in yourself, and surrounding yourself with people that are accelerators in your life, not brakes. I was fortunate and still am fortunate to have lots of great people in my life.
I have friends who are attempting some very challenging running races this year and have confided in me that they are battling their own mental demons. I have friends who are battling injuries that are preventing them from running. I have a friend who is doing a mind-boggling long distance swim while other friends want to tackle the R2R2R Grand Canyon run. While I completely understand this and will do whatever it takes to support you, I leave you with this: don't give up.
Let's be clear here: we are just talking about athletic endeavors, not far more serious situations. That said, I think racing, and the central idea presented in this post, provides a nice analogy for life. I have friends battling cancer; friends trying to make a go of it in music, art, and photography; friends trying to survive a college degree program; friends bearing down to save their marriages; friends battling substance abuse problems. Don't give up. Don't do it. Fight like Hell to be the change you want to see in yourself and in the world. Wrap your arms around the world and experience a rebirth. It is never too late to invoke this change and live it.
|The start of a recent morning walk where I used to do a lot of training.|
On Monday, the gun will go off at the Boston Marathon. While I won't be there physically, and there will be some sadness on that day, I will be there spiritually for my friends and the other runners. Missy, Sandy and Aaron, and others, I sincerely wish you the best of luck. Go get 'em!