To Be My Best Self

Original Source: Personal journal entry written on 07.07.15

Dancing at Mile 50

After meditating the last few mornings, I’ve been doing a prayer of gratitude and asking for the strength to “be my best self”. This is the self I aspire to be. The self who is good and kind to those he interacts with, who thinks before he speaks and does not use words that would bring harm to others. I want to be the self who follows through on the things he commits to.

Too often the self I have been lately is distracted, my attention moving rapidly from one meaningless thing to another. I have allowed the whims of my taste buds to dictate what I have put into my mouth and allowed boredom or stress to regulate how much I consume, whether that be in the form of food or digital distractions. I have made my lists, and then ignored them for weeks on end, choosing instead to chase down rabbits in long, dark holes. I have chosen the quick fix instead of the things that could add value and knowledge to my life.

I want to be that guy who crossed the finish line at Bryce Canyon. I want to be the guy who put in the daily work needed to accomplish a goal, who did the little things that were necessary to get where he wanted to go, who sacrificed doing the things that might have brought fleeting pleasure for the tasks that brought a life long reward. I want to be the guy who faced pain and difficulty and still managed to be nice to his crew, to tell jokes, and do a little dance even though the road ahead was still long and difficult and soon to be dark. I was my best self that day and now I want that for every day.

The Bryce 100

John on the Bryce 100 course
Nearing the end. Photo by Katie Dunn

Words to describe what it was like to complete the Bryce 100 have been difficult to come by. How do I summarize a 31 hour 37 minute roller coaster ride that was 6 months of intense training, years of previous running experience, and countless miles in the making?

I guess I could start with some facts. My crew and I saw a bit of everything in terms of the weather. A cool morning start with the smoke of a controlled forest burn in the air gave way to alternating periods of mostly sunny skies and light rain. At one point, we experienced an intense thunder hail storm with pea sized chunks of ice pouring down on us and lightening strikes within less than a mile of where we were standing. Leaving the comfort of the aid station heading into that mess on my way to the high point of the course at around 9,500 feet felt almost comical at the time; I was already trying to run 100 miles and now this? Thankfully, the same clouds that brought us the occasionally wet conditions also acted as a blanket, preventing some of the day’s heat from escaping and keeping nighttime temperatures in the 40’s instead of the predicted 30’s. After the dawn of day two on my feet, it was warm and the sun intense. Afternoon storms again arrived, thankfully after I had finished.

Hoodoos and MountainsThe scenery on the course was stunning while the difficulty of the terrain was unrelenting. When I told fellow runners that this was my first 100 miler, the response from veterans was universal: “you picked a hard one.” The route was a mix of single and double track, and forest service roads with around 19,000 feet of elevation gain. The climbing and subsequent descending never let up until crossing the finish line. I was grateful that I found the trail portions to generally be less technically difficult than the wet, rocky, and root strewn paths of the Appalachians. The rain did create some extremely slick areas, but these quickly regained some solidity in the dry, high desert air.

In the end, none of the above really matters. When I reached the starting line, I knew that there was no reason physically that I would not be able to complete the distance. I worked with a coach and was in the best running shape I have ever been in. If properly prepared physically, running 100 miles is easy. All you have to do is just keep moving forward. The harder part is convincing yourself that you can do it and that there is a good enough reason to keep going. In the early miles of the event, it still seemed impossible to me that I would be able to push my body that far. The two things kept me going were a stubborn desire not to quit and a lot of support from both my friends and family who were there at the race and those that were with me from afar.

I’ve dabbled in a lot things in my life, whether that be different colleges and degree programs, employment opportunities, or hobbies. For many of those things, when the going has gotten tough, I’ve decided that maybe there was something better out there for me to do. I have quit many things, and though I do not regret most of those decisions, I was determined that barring physical injury, running 100 miles was not going to be one of them. I wanted to prove to myself that I could move through struggle and difficulty and not succumb to the urge to bail. Yes, quitting is something I have done in life, but I needed to demonstrate that my past actions do not mean that I must define myself as a quitter. These thoughts were with me during much of the run.

My resolve to not quit was strong, but even so, I can scarcely imagine completing this endeavor without the aid of my support system. I saw my crew every 20 miles or so and they took really good care of me, providing both logistical and emotional support. Every time I left an aid station where they were present, my spirits were uplifted and my energy renewed. For the last 50 miles, I had a pacer to keep me on track and to provide some needed company during the night and the difficult miles once the sun had risen again. Completing the Bryce 100 was not something I did, it was something we did.

It seems that after such an epic undertaking, there should be more to say, some profound life lesson learned during the depths of the night while dancing at the edge of exhaustion. Perhaps once more time has passed some buried insight gleaned while running the Bryce 100 will resurface. But maybe not. Like most stories, the ending was anti-climatic: I ran for close to a day and a half without sleep, and then I stopped, and the experience was over. The old cliché holds true, it was always about the journey and not the destination. Along that journey, I got to experience countless beautiful moments during my training runs, connect deeply with friends who shared time with me both on and off the trail, and learn once again that we are all far more capable than we let ourselves believe.

Thank You

And now for the Academy Awards acceptance speech….

Paul Morris: Thanks for letting me pace you at the Pinhoti 100. Experiencing that event with you provided the last bits of motivation I needed to convince me to try and run 100 miles. Thanks also for letting me tag along with you for a good portion of the Georgia Death Race for some excellent hill training.

Sean Meissner: If anybody needs a coach, I can’t recommend Sean highly enough. Thanks Sean for working with my ever changing schedule and crafting a training plan that taught me that you don’t have to log a ton of weekly miles in order to prepare to run 100 miles, so long as they are quality miles.

Dr. Edwin Gray and Patsy Gray: Thanks Dad for leading by example and demonstrating the importance of physical fitness and making it a part of my childhood. Thanks to both of you for your support of my not so conventional lifestyle and always being there when I needed you.

Corey Hadden: Corey thanks for the all the time we have spent together on the trails and for coming along with me for a portion of my 12 hour training run.

Susan Drakeford: Susan, thank you for your friendship and running with me while training for Bryce.

Greg Gillett: Thanks Greg for the miles of conversation we have logged together.

Steve Ackerman, Sue Pegrume, Cameron Richardson, the aforementioned Greg Gillett, Anthony Francis, Shawn Robbins, Corbin Massey, Julie Burns and the North Carolina Outward Bound School: The spark, inspiration, and ass kicking I received while a student of yours profoundly changed me, transforming me from someone without energy and enthusiasm into a person intoxicated with the possibilities that life has to offer. Thank you for the care and guidance you provided me at a time when I desperately needed it.

Rich Roll: The Rich Roll Podcast provided me with hours of inspiration while training. Rich’s goal is to “inspire and empower you to discover, uncover, unlock and unleash your best, most authentic self”, and his conversations with elite athletes, nutrition experts, entrepreneurs, social activists, and everyday heroes do just that.

Thanks to all of you who sent out words of encouragement via social media while I was running. My crew relayed your words and they became a great source of strength and inspiration.

Thanks to My Crew

Photo of TrishTrish Haitz: Who else would floss the dirt out from between my toes but Trish Haitz? I did not ask Trish to make the long trek out to Utah to be a part of my crew, she just showed up like she always does for her friends. Trish, I do not have the words to express how touched I was by this act of friendship. Thank you.

Picture of KatieKatie Dunn: 38 miles together. Thanks Katie for the conversation, the periods of silence, and the laughter. Thanks for staying with me through the night and the heat of the following day as my energy and mood roller coastered back and forth. Thanks for your gentle reminders to keep eating and drinking.

Photo of Baloo (Adventure Dog)Adventure Dog: It’s always good to enter an aid station and see a happy dog running towards you. Thanks Baloo for lifting the spirits of not only me, but many other runners and crew members.

And most importantly…

Photo of Mary and JohnThank you to my beautiful bride, Mary Fingeroff. Thanks for your unwavering support for whatever crazy endeavor or idea I’m currently obsessed with. Thank you for running with me for 12 of the toughest miles of the course as night was falling and so was my energy. Thank you for putting up with weekend after weekend of me being gone many hours training and then being tired for the rest of the day. Thanks for giving up whole days to follow along and support my long training runs. Thanks for running beside me, wherever life takes us.