That line — “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” — was popularized by the book-turned-movie(s)-turned-TV show Friday Night Lights, about life (and a little high school football) in small-town West Texas. As fans of the show know, football was just a vehicle used in the show to explore small-town life, relationships, and the values/morals we want to see in others and ourselves.
As an aside, I got pulled over in Midland (the heart of West Texas) in 2003 when I was driving across the country to Arizona to start a new job, as I was anxious to get there. And for those of you who have not been to West Texas, it is mind-numbingly boring. There’s a reason Friday Night Lights was set in West Texas: there is NOTHING to see or do besides high school football.
(This is pretty much all you see for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Just be thankful no one has come up with the Midland 100-mile run yet…)
At any rate, I was driving about 110 in a 75 mph zone. The sheriff said, “Son, any reason why you are driving so fast through my county?” “Is that a rhetorical question, officer?” was probably not the answer he was hoping for. 🙂
Okay, I — along with my wallet that was $200 lighter — digress. As with high school football in West Texas, ultra running is similarly a bit of a microcosm of life itself, as this sport of ours can — if we let it — teach us things that go far beyond becoming more efficient endurance athletes. The message of the “clear eyes” line is universal and simple: if you prepare properly and give it your all on game day, you can’t go wrong; you’ve already won. We’ve all been taught some form of that “prepare and play ‘the right way'” message since the time we were toddlers.
In ultrarunning, though, I like to think of the “clear eyes, full hearts” line even more literally and expansively than just running “the right way.” Sure, you need to prepare and have realistic goals (“clear eyes”), but to me, “full hearts” means just that: run with love in your heart. Yes, that sounds exceedingly-cheesy, but the ability to always retain perspective during an ultra, to always keep your humanity, and to really engage with your surroundings — especially when you are feeling like crap — is one of the great secrets of this sport.
That’s what we are going to talk about today: the ability to stay positive and not “lose yourself” when the shit hits the proverbial fan during an ultra (which pretty much ALWAYS happens…). So for the second time in two weeks, it appears I’m going to talk about the “Tao” of someone named Taylor. While Taylor Swift teaches us to “shake off” all the negativity/acrimony that can surround the sport at times, Coach Taylor reminds us that we need to keep perspective, have our hearts in the right place, and never lose ourselves during the race. (If anyone knows another “Taylor” for me to use next week, be sure to let me know. Actually, most readers would probably prefer you didn’t) 🙂
Note: For the second week in a row, we are delaying the discussion on whether weightlifting helps ultra running I know everyone is on pins and needles for the answer to be revealed. For a hint, look at the front-runners of any decent-sized ultra, and ask yourself how much time you think they spend in a gym…
(Is that Mike Morton or Arnold Schwarzenegger? Hard to tell…)
2. Clear Eyes.
I have repeatedly discussed the need to show up to a race with a proper training base and a realistic assessment of where you are, fitness-wise, so that you can formulate a rational and achievable goal.
When I toed the line this past weekend at the Javelina 100 (called the Javelina “Jundred” or “JJ” for short), I knew that I wasn’t exactly going to compete for the win, as my legs are still not 100% from Spartathlon a month, and I’ve had a pretty busy race schedule this year already (for me, at least). But as stated above, I used to live in Arizona, my best friend lives there, and I love the JJ course and the people there every year. Plus, the scenery doesn’t exactly suck:
(Sunrise at the Javelina Jundred this past Saturday morning. This is about Mile 4, looking back at the “Four Peaks” in the McDowell Mountain range. If that vista at the beginning of the race won’t get you fired up during a run, I don’t know what will).
That’s one of my favorite things about running ultras: you get to run in some REALLY cool places and see some REALLY cool things. Here are some on-course views I’ve had at races, just from this year alone:
(Heading up the Whitney Portal Rd at the end of this year’s Badwater 135 with Eric Spencer (I was crewing for him))
(Sunset on Mt. Whitney at this year’s Badwater 135)
(The final few hundred yards of this year’s Spartathlon in Greece)
3. Full Hearts.
For me, “running from a place of love” means that when I get to the actual event weekend, it is MUCH more about the overall experience than about how “well” I do at the race. Sure, I love to compete, and I want to do as well as possible, but I really try to treat the race as a celebration of what I love to do — run — and celebrate while on great courses and while surrounded by some truly awesome people.
Like I said, there is nothing wrong with competition, but having too much of a “results-oriented” mindset during a race means that you will almost surely be disappointed when things do not go your way. (And in an ultra, things almost surely will not go exactly as you have planned). In this sport, I am almost always good friends with the people I’m competing against at the race, and while I want to end up winning, I also want everyone else to have their best race possible. I want to win when others are at their best, not when they are injured/having a bad day/etc.
I’m hardly unique in this regard in our sport. While most traditional sports have several competitors who follow the Michael Jordan/Tiger Woods/Lance Armstrong “win at all costs” mantra, that is largely absent from utlrarunning. I’ve always found it much better to compete like crazy during the race, but after, cheer for the winner (whether it’s me or not) and genuinely be happy for him or her (and here in Florida, the overall winner is quite often a “her.”) 🙂
(If you’re only motivation at the race is “to win” and she’s there too, you’re quite likely going to wind up disappointed…)
The great thing about our sport is that there is not just one “winner” on race day. We all have different goals, different motivations, different reasons for being out there. For me, I like to compete, I like to experience new courses in cool places, and I absolutely love to connect with others during a race and share in their energy/passion for the sport. Running is my “happy place,” and an ultramarathon is — for me — the ultimate celebration of my love of running. So long as you are true to yourself and your reasons for being out there, and don’t lose sight of those reasons, you can’t lose.
4. Can’t Lose.
(“Every man at some point in his life is going to lose a battle. He is going to fight and he is going to lose. But what makes him a man is at the midst of that battle he does not lose himself. This game is not over, this battle is not over.” –Coach Taylor)
At Javelina last weekend, I had dozens of times when I wanted to stop. I had no energy, I had no legs (I knew by about Mile 3 that it would be a grind).
(That’s not a good look to have on your face at Mile 20 of a 100-mile race…)
By Mile 80 or so, I was reduced to a crawl so slow I started to become mildly hypothermic (even though it never dipped below the 50s during the race). The doubts had not only started, but were now taking full-time residence in my mind:
- “What are we doing out here?”
- “You’ve raced enough this year.”
- “You already know you can run 100 miles. Let’s just stay here at the aid station where it’s warm and call it a day.”
- “Running around in circles is pointless anyway.”
You get the point. We can all come up with tons of completely rational reasons to quit during the race. And — remember the Tao of Taylor Swift — I think judging others on their decisions to quit or not is downright silly. But for me, on that day, stopping just did not sit well with me.
When I feel like crap, I often picture that scene in The Lion King when young adult Simba is wandering around looking at the stars, and Darth Vader, er, Mufasa, tells him to “remember who you are”:
We all hit this point in the race. I was not out at JJ that year to win. I wasn’t out there because I had anything to prove. But I did want to fully experience the race, and I didn’t feel like I had done that yet. So I needed to get up and start moving, and fast. (By far the best way to combat feeling very cold is to elevate your heart rate. Warm clothes/warm food/etc. are all helpful, but are only temporary solutions unless you can get your heart rate up to the point where your body warms itself up. So when cold, force yourself to move faster…)
(Jimmy Dean Freeman helping me get out for my last lap at JJ)
Looking back, I’m glad I kept going and finished the race, even though my time was nowhere near what I expected when I started. But I allowed myself to be open to experiencing a different type of race than I thought would occur, and I’m very happy I did. I saw some amazing performances out there on the course over those last few hours. This sport of ours is filled with amazing people; life’s “super users,” as described by Dean K.
I couldn’t agree more. As a father of two young children, I often wonder if they are better off growing up today versus in the 70’s and 80’s, when I grew up. You only need to go to any public place to watch how smart phones, social media, and other technology have virtually eliminated face-to-face interaction. How many more text messages do we all send per day versus talking on the phone or, gasp, actually meeting someone in person? There is a lot to be worried about for parents concerned about their kids’ development…
For me, ultras are a tonic for those feelings. While I can lose my faith in humanity at times, it is always fully restored after a race weekend. People just exude so much love, positivity, determination, and a true sense of community.
When I look back on this year, I will of course think about all the unbelievable places I’ve been and the successes I’ve had during races. But most of all, I remember all the amazing people I shared those moments with, from my one-of-a-kind wife to great friends, old and new. That is what I “remember” when I feel like quitting during a race . . . you guys.
So thanks for being such an important part of my life, and when things go bad at your next race, I hope your inner James Earl Jones helps you remember what motivates you too! Have a great weekend, and see you guys out there…