When I was in high school, I was fat. In fact, I topped out at the same weight I am today, minus about five pounds or so. I got sick of it, and I did the HMR program. I lost about 130 pounds, started running every day, lifting weights two to four days a week, and I went from a size 24 (in 2000 sizing) to a size 10/12. I looked awesome, and I was pretty fit.
Obviously, that didn’t last over so many years. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and I’m back in the same spot. Unfortunately, my top high school weight is no longer my top weight, but I have been losing everything I gained from children, depression, and whatever else over the last three years. I have a long way to go, but I’m doing it the old-fashioned way this time: changed eating habits and exercise. I have done a juice fast, and I am going to do another one this coming month.
I love fasting, actually. I feel pretty good while I do it, and I don’t mind not having to worry about not eating solid food. Juice fasting makes everything fresh and clean. I recommend reboots for literally everyone because I cannot say enough good things about the results you get from it. All those nutrients and whole foods crammed into a Mason jar cannot be beaten, in my opinion. It reset my taste buds and shrunk my stomach.
But the topic today is not fasting; it’s running. Running is my favorite form of physical activity, as hard as that is for most people to believe. I’m short and thick, even under the best of circumstances. I am great at weightlifting. I have the build for it. I do not look like a runner, lean and light. For many years of my life, I was convinced that I could never be a runner and that running was only for certain types of people. I’m here to tell you that that line of thinking is bullshit. I may not run fast, but dammit, with some work, I can run far.
Not everyone is going to be Usain Bolt, but most people don’t need to be. For the vast majority of us, we are running to maintain or lose weight and to be stronger and fitter. Those things are true for me, too. I definitely enjoy the positive side effects of running. I also like the head shakes and looks of disbelief and admiration you get from people when you tell them you get up at 5:00 in the morning to run six miles. What can I say? I’m kind of a glory whore.
I love distance running, though. At the height of my running days, I put away a 10k six days a week. Running 36 miles per week is nothing to sneeze at. Most people will never build up that kind of base mileage. Well, kids, I’m here to start building it up again, and then I’m going to go beyond. My dream in high school was to run a marathon. I’m aiming a little higher than that this time. I want to run an ultra.
Ultra marathons are the great wide yonder of running. Some ultras are “only” 30 miles, some are 80, some are 100, some are 135, and I believe there are some that approach or exceed 200 miles. Simply stated, ultras are not for the weekend 5k runner, and they are not for the faint-at-heart. Ultra runners are a different breed, and I think most of the world views them as a little bit – or a lot – crazy.
How did I decide that I wanted to do this? Well, Joe Rogan had ultra marathoner Dave Goggins on a couple of months ago. I listened to the podcast the first time and was blown away, and then I went back and listened again. Dave Goggins is a former Navy SEAL – one of only a handful of black men to ever make the cut – and a longtime ultra runner. He also holds the world record for most consecutive pull-ups, and he got third degree burns on his hands from doing it. The dude is made of steel. He’s fucking incredible. There is just no other way to state it.
He wasn’t always incredible, though. He tells a tale of a kid who grew up in a broken home in a shitty small town, fighting against low self-esteem, being black in a town with a lot of racism, and a learning disability. He was working a low-paying job as a nighttime pest control sprayer, and then he decided that he didn’t want to be a loser anymore. He dropped the spray can, left the restaurant he was supposed to be killing roaches in, and he never went back. If you listen to the interview or follow him on Instagram, it’s incredible. You can’t reconcile that visual to the man who exists now.
The race that Goggins talked about was Badwater. Badwater is infamous among ultras for being the “toughest” race in the world. Whether that’s technically true or not, I couldn’t say, but it sure as hell sounds like, well, hell. Badwater is a 135-mile run through Death Valley in July, ending on the summit of Mt. Whitney. Supposedly, runners stay on the white road lines so that their shoes don’t melt as quickly. You have to drink about 60 ounces of water per hour on average to avoid dehydration. Sunburn, blisters, and air temperatures rocketing past 130 degrees are competitors’ constant companions during the day. Unlike most ultras, there are no aid stations. Runners are required to bring their own van and crew or push their own supplies. Apparently, there are people who have done that because ultra runners.
The first time Goggins talked about Badwater, I was intrigued. The second time, I was hooked. I knew.
I wanted it. Immediately. I wanted it. I was sitting in my cube at work, and I thought, “I’m going to run that race. It may take me a decade or more to get to the point of being fit for competition, but I am going to run Badwater.”
Anyone who saw me now would laugh, and I’m not saying that to be unkind to myself. It’s the truth. Badwater is one of the ultimate tests of endurance and internal fortitude. It is dangerous, and it is punishing.
It is also not a race that you can just say, “Hey, I have a death wish. Sign me up!” Nope. You have to build up a resume. You have to qualify for Badwater, so to speak. Qualification looks like having run other major ultras like Western States 100 (which was last weekend), Hard Rock 100, Arrowhead, Leadville, or Keys 100. You have to have proven your mettle as a runner. You submit an application, and every year, only 100 runners are chosen from over 1,000 applicants. I understand you also have to commit to showing up in April to run the 80-mile warm-up (ha), Badwater Salton Sea.
I’ll be real with you, guys: I haven’t run a 5k yet. I broke two miles in eight days, which I felt was impressive, given my weight, but I haven’t made it to three yet, and we’re approaching the beginning of week 4. I signed up for a 5k night run through a cemetery in September. It’s just a fun run – the kind where everyone gets a T-shirt and some sort of medal for participating. There is also a 10k and a half-marathon. My friend is coming to town to walk it because she’s really interested in historical cemeteries. She broke her back snowboarding a few months ago and can’t run, but she was so jazzed about the place and into the idea that I could run it that she decided she had to come along.
My plan is to run that 5k in September and then a couple of Halloween 5k trots in October before heading indoors for the winter. The plan is to emerge to a 10k once running season starts again in the spring. If I remain injury-free and get enough weight off – that’s going to be the key to progressing, past a certain point – the idea is to run a half by June/July 2019, and then hopefully be trained up for a marathon in the fall. If I can hack that and not kill myself on the marathon, I will start lining up local, “short” ultras for the following spring with my eye to the Keys 100 for my first “big” race. I chose Keys because it’s not on mountain terrain, which eliminates the potential altitude issues. It’s also along the highway through the Florida Keys, and I am obsessed with Key West, which is where it ends. My coworker is going there next week, and I’m jealous as hell. I have always wanted to go, and I think running down the Keys and then staying in Key West for a few days as a reward sounds pretty damn good.
Of course, this all sounds great on paper, but the reality is probably going to look a lot different. I know that. I’m aware that at some point, I’m probably going to have injuries. There will be lost toenails, blisters, sore, tense muscles, chunks of weekend time spent pounding pavement, and trying to put together an ultra crew.
I told my best friend about this idea – the same friend I told about my conversion idea. Her reaction was completely the opposite this time. She ran through the litany of reasons why I’m crazy, why it’s a bad idea, why it wouldn’t be possible for someone like me who wasn’t a born Jackie Joyner-Kersey, and what it will do to my body, if I attempt it or, heaven forbid, accomplish it.
I listened patiently. I’ve read just enough to know exactly what the litany list looks like. At the end, I agreed that it wasn’t for everyone, and I moved the conversation along. No harm, no foul.
A moment later, she steered the conversation back, and she said, “Dude, I’m really sorry. I feel like what I said was really bitchy and unsupportive.”
I laughed, and I said, “No harm done, no offense taken. I am not expecting a lot of support, honestly. I’m expecting most people to think that I’m insane. And that’s fine, you know? People that want to do great things get called crazy. Einstein. Steve Jobs. Elon Musk. Tesla. People laugh at them and point and call them names, and mostly they fail. Until they don’t. So yeah, I might be crazy, and the whole thing might sound stupid, but I want to at least get to say I failed as hard as I possibly fucking could. What I really want to be able to say is that I failed really hard for a really long time, and then one day, I fucking won. If it takes five years or ten, I don’t care. At the very least, I want to be able to say that I tried.”
She seemed to accept that.
I genuinely meant every word of it, though. I do not care if people think I am insane. I do not care if people think that I’m too fat or not athletic enough or whatever. Those are all excuses, and it’s fucking stupid to allow other people to make excuses on your behalf before you have barely dipped a toe into the water. I think, honestly, what most people are doing, when they talk failure to you about your dreams, is exposing their own lack of belief in themselves. They cannot envision themselves doing it, overcoming this mountain from a similar position, and so they automatically assume that it cannot be done. I have one thing to say to that: Fuck their lack of belief. Fuck it hard. Sideways for good measure.
Strangely, committing my mind to that goal immediately took away some of the pain I associated with running. Not physically, of course – I knew it was going to hurt. But it took away that pain of getting up early, of having to battle to find time, of all of those things that have plagued me before when I started running. It was like I returned to the treadmill with new eyes.
I immediately threw out my Couch to 5k app. I threw out everything I had been doing. I decided that, for the first 10k, I was going to do it my way, which is strictly distance-based. It worked for me before when I was fat before, and I figured if it worked once to good results, it would work again to at least get me going.
The first day, I got on the treadmill and walked a quarter, ran a quarter, walked a quarter, ran a quarter, and then walked a quarter. The next day, I added one tenth of a mile to the running portion. The day after, I went to half a mile. The next day, I ran a full mile. Within eight days, I had moved up to running two consecutive miles at a time. I have not hit the 5k mark yet, but I’m expecting to do so in the next week.
Once I actually hit the 5k mark, I’ll probably spend a week maintaining before I start adding tempo runs and inclines, along with further distance runs. I don’t think it’s even vaguely out-of-the-question for me to be running 4-5 miles at once by the time I do the 5k.
And folks, I’m not skinny. Not even close. Most people looking at me would not believe that I can jog half a block. If you want to start running – or biking or skating or mountain climbing or whatever – you have to immediately disabuse yourself of the notion that you can’t do it for X reason. That reason might be making it harder, and it may be holding you back, but you can fix that, and it probably isn’t holding you back completely. We are capable of so, so much more than we realize.
“Most people quit at 40%,” is one of my favorite things that Goggins said in that interview.
Some other gems:
“Beyond motivation, there is drive.”
“It is my duty to share.”
“You want to be uncommon amongst uncommon people.”
“The worst thing that can happen to a man is to become civilized.”
“You ain’t good, man. You ain’t never fucking arrived.”
“I had to invent a guy that didn’t exist. I had to invent a guy that could take any pain, any suffering, any kind of judgment, be called nigger, be called whatever in the world, and be able to stand in the room and say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
I think these things literally every day now. Every day, when it starts to hurt, I think, “You cannot quit at 40%. You cannot quit just when it starts to hurt. That’s when the magic happens.”
A lot of people tell me that they hate running. Most people, even. That’s fine. Not everyone has to like running. I like it because it’s a battle against myself, and most of the battle occurs internally. Every day, I get up and fight a battle against my baser self. It’s more about mastering your control over your own responses to pain and fatigue than anything else. Make no mistake, it’s hard to do.
I actually feel a little bit sorry for the people who are naturally athletic and trying to do these sorts of things because I bet it takes them longer to feel the physical pain. When you’ve been fat and out of shape for at least 15 years, you know that it’s going to suck. You know that there isn’t going to be any glory for a long time, if ever. You know that you’re going to have to fight yourself physically and mentally, and I think maybe that makes it easier, in a way. I guess I’d liken it to sending experienced combat vets into battle versus sending a fresh unit of untested newbs in. It doesn’t matter how great a crack shot Newb-Newb is or how fast he can run or how great at map reading he is. Chances are pretty good that the combat vet is going to outperform him every time because he’s used to combat. When you’re basically entering a suffering contest, I think you might have it better if you have to suffer from start to finish.
At the same time, I don’t want to make it out like every minute is a suck fest. Like I said, I enjoy running. My morning running time is my time. It’s (usually) quiet, and I can sort myself out for the day. If I have something that’s bothering me, I work through it on the treadmill. I have good ideas for projects I’m working on. I listen to podcasts about topics that I care about, and I have time to sit and sort my philosophical ideas about. I actually had a “moment” on the treadmill this week that ended in tears – not in a bad way – and it was extraordinarily cathartic. (I have a post in the works on it that may or may not get published due to its personal nature.)
So I do not approach the run as suffering, even though sometimes it is. I don’t have an amazing run every single day. Some are better than others. This week was mostly a string of what I would consider mediocre runs. The fact remains, however, that I have had so many amazing inspirations and revelations while running that I honestly believe that the physical pain and the mental sorting and discipline time is something that I need to stay centered and to level up.
A lot of highly successful people meditate. If you listen to Tim Ferriss, something like 85% of his guests endorse some form of meditation. I have tried meditating, and to be really honest, I have had a few minor moments with it, but I have never gotten that much out of it. Running does for what I imagine meditation does for these folks. This is not to say that meditation isn’t amazing for a lot of people, but thus far, it has not proven to be the thing for me. Some people do hard workouts and meditate. For me, the time I spend in my own head during the run is the meditation. I have read about people who train themselves to meditate for hours and hours on end. To me, the long runs are a lot like that.
And that is in the future. Long runs. Saturday and Sundays spent doing two, four, six hour runs and beyond. Training for marathons takes a lot of time. You spend a lot of hours on the treadmill and a lot of hours pounding pavement and trails. You’ll go through many pairs of running shoes, chafe in places you didn’t know rubbed, and learn how to eat and drink while you run because, little known to people that don’t do long distance runs, ultras are also eating contests. Apparently you can’t run 50, 80, or 100 miles without snacking on the move. The car needs gas in the tank. Who knew, right?
Knowing the kind of time commitment that it will require to go the whole distance, I know that my life as it currently operates is not conducive to getting to that point. I am going to have to figure some things out, and it’s in process. Working the traditional 9-to-5 is not going to get me to the Keys 100 or Western States or Badwater. In point of fact, living in Illinois may not be what it’s going to take to get me there. When you’re talking about running these big races and then running them at high altitudes, which many of them are, you add a whole other element to your training that cannot be replicated at sea level. I have long dreamed of moving to Chicago, but I am now faced with the possibility that, if I want to accomplish everything that I’m setting out to do, Chicago may not be it for me.
Sometimes you have to recalibrate your plans. I love Chicago. It’s my favorite American city. I love the vibe, I love the skyline, I love the lake, and I love the fact that I have a lot of friends and acquaintances there. I could arrive on the scene and have a ready-made crew. Chicago is also expensive as fuck, and the politics are abhorrent to me. Chicago has ruined Illinois with its idiotic socialist policies. I know that it doesn’t seem like a huge deal from downstate, but I also know that once I was in it, having to deal with the stupid that is Cook County and Chicago proper, it would drive me crazy.
Perhaps it will be the case that I end up heading west. I would have exactly zero qualms about living in the high desert. Literally zero. I love Arizona, and I have family and friends out there. As much as I like the weather in California, it wouldn’t be for me, in terms of politics and prices. Vegas could be an option, or even Salt Lake City, and with Salt Lake, you have access to skiing and mountain activities just up the road. A lot of people scream for Colorado, and I definitely know people in Colorado, some of whom would be fantastic resources and cheerleaders for all of this. I have been twice, and as much as I enjoy the majesty of the Rockies, the people I have encountered out there ruined Colorado for me. I simply don’t care for Denver, and Boulder was not the town for me. I’m afraid that, if I head west, it will be the desert for me.
Of course, none of this is going to happen today. It might not happen next year or even the year after, but it is a goal, and it’s a goal I can feel good about. It is spurring on other areas of my life – areas that I have not written about and likely will not for a while yet – and for that reason, I think I have chosen the right goal. A lot of things seem to be slowly coming together, like beautifully made gears in a fine Swiss watch. They all have their place, and once everything is where it should be and the watchmaker turns the winding dial, the whole works will begin to spring to life, and suddenly, it will all make sense, keeping time down to the seconds per month. There is a reason people value expensive Swiss watches: beauty and craftsmanship. There is also a reason that people value “crazy” endeavors, making money, having a hot body, and generally doing well for yourself: beauty and craftsmanship.
Right now, we’re still in the stage of doing the math, taking the measurements, and deciding how the gears are all going to fit into the watch casing. We have the approximate size for the casing, but we still don’t know what the face is going to look like. Will it be utilitarian and spare? Will it be iced out? Will it have some touches of bling that give it a hint of wealth and class? Will it measure heart rate, steps, play music, answer calls, and tell the time anywhere in the world? I don’t know, but I have an idea.
But first thing’s first: Wiggle your big toe.
First, we hit 5k and get comfortable with that. Next, we run the September race – just to finish, not to compete against anyone else. The truth is, I’m not out to break records. I’m not out to beat one particular person other than myself. I have specific goals in mind that I want to meet.
1. Get healthy.
a. Reach and maintain a healthy weight
b. Be fit and strong
2. Achieve a level of fitness that most people consider extraordinary
3. Develop mental and physical discipline
4. Accomplish physical feats that most consider crazy or impossible
5. Use the drive to achieve this goal as a driver for achieving other goals
a. The focus and discipline required for this goal will serve the others
What I am ultimately saying is that I don’t think I can actually do just one of the things I want to do. I have some lofty goals besides ultra marathoning, but up to this point, I have not seen a way to develop the tools necessary to achieve them, specifically the self-confidence and focus. Those things are tools, by the way. If you want to achieve amazing things, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to have insane focus. You have to be single-minded in your pursuits, and I realize so clearly now that running is going to be the meat grinder for developing the mental and physical wherewithal to accomplish the rest of it. I cannot honestly believe that I didn’t see that before.
It has taken me a long time to even get this far. Years, actually. It is incredible to me now how deep the well was that I had fallen into. I could barely even see the light for its depths, to be honest. But at some point, I realized that if I wanted to survive, I was going to have to suck it the fuck up and climb out of the well myself. Nobody is coming to throw down a rope. Nobody cares if you suck at life – not even your friends and family. They might pity you, but their pity is worth nothing. G-d Himself does not care about you, if the only thing that you are going to do is sit down at the bottom of the well and cry about how unfair it is that you tripped and fell into a well.
For a long time, I was really bitter and resentful about the way things had turned out in my life. My life looks nothing like I thought it would at 34. Not a thing. I have had some damned sad days in my time, and I have had whole years that I would generally class as shitty. Actually, with a few bright spots, I would say that the last decade of my life was, taken as a whole, a failure. I had a hell of a lot going for me, and I wasted it on drink, drugs, overeating, avoiding responsibility, and knowing the whole time, deep down somewhere, that I was a piece of shit for wasting my gifts and not having the courage or the drive to pursue the things that I really wanted from my life.
I am done being a coward, and I am done giving up. I refuse to give up. I mean the next thing I say literally. If it kills me – if it fucking kills me – I will become an ultra runner. If I die in Death Valley, I’ll die knowing I tried. I’ll go to my pine box knowing that I tried to be better. Not better than other people, but better than my worst self.
On that note, my writing is done. I have to clean the house to get ready for my mini-vacation next weekend, and I need to run during the kids’ naptime. I need to write down the names of some good general practitioners in the area because I know I need to get a full physical and some blood work done before I proceed too much further down this road. I haven’t had a GP since I was a kid, but it’s time. It is time to do a lot of things that I have managed to put off, but things are coming together, and the time to sort things out is now truly at hand.
I’ll see you out there, kids. Stay thirsty.