Why You’re Not an Elite Runner (Yet)

The following is an excerpt of the first draft of my book. The book contains anecdotes and stories about the sport of ultra running, and how it relates to life. I haven’t picked a title yet, but here’s the section I wrote this morning. Enjoy!

***

When I first picked up Scott Jurek’s book Eat & Run, there was one question that I hoped his words would help me answer: What sets an elite apart from the rest of us?

What qualities do they have that we don’t? What kind of drive, talent, training, or motivation drives them to excel? Apart from raw running talent, can this be learned? And most importantly, can I run better?

Read More: Eat & Run Book Review

At San Diego 100 2012, I paced Jay Danek who finished well under 24 hours. Jay had previously finished his first 100 miler in an impressive 19 hours. Although Jay isn’t an elite, watching him power uphill at around mile 80 changed my mind about running.

Struggling to keep up with Jay, I decided that I should start demanding more of myself. That I would start racing ultras, not just entering to finish. I wanted my main competition to be myself. My drive was not to win races, but to run better than I previously could.

Read More: The Turning Point in my Running Career

This morning, I read The New Yorker magazine article by Malcolm Gladwell titled Slackers: Alberto Salazar and the Art of Exhaustion.

If you don’t already know Alberto Salazar, he was “the greatest distance runner in the world” for the first half of the 1980s. Gladwell’s article shines a revealing light on Salazar’s development as a person and a runner, and I was surprised to see some commonalities with Scott Jurek’s own accounts in Eat & Run.

The resounding theme was an acceptance of pain. Not just expecting, but embracing it. Letting it drive you. Running despite it.

Read More: The Art of Exhaustion by Malcolm Gladwell

With a background of barefoot and minimalist running, I was taught over and over again that pain was bad. “Running is not supposed to hurt,” I was told. “If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.”

While this may be true as far as perfecting your form, it appeared to me that there was a pain threshold that most people dared not cross. And those that did, became elites. Elites had a wiliness to push beyond what they were capable of accomplishing pain-free. And that’s where they found greatness.

I don’t think running is supposed to hurt all the time. But if running never hurts, I wonder if you’re “doing it right”. I wonder if you’re growing. Exploring your limits. Improving.

Read More: Why I’m Rethinking Barefoot Running

Ever since I started running in 2007, I have not had a single injury. I am usually reluctant to state that fact, since I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Running is a sport plagued with injury. With injury being a major topic among runners, can I really consider myself a part of the sport if I don’t have any injury stories to call my own? And most importantly, does this reflect that fact that I have never pushed or explored my limits? That I’m not trying hard enough?

A few months ago, I went on a Movin Shoes training run. Afterwards, we went to a brewery for food and drinks. In the running conversation that ensued, someone suggested that running talent came in many different forms. For some it was speed. For others, endurance. And for others, the ability to not injure.

My ears perked up. Could my talent be an injury-free running career? I hoped so.

Coming home from SD100, I decided to start training. Harder and better.

I cut down on my racing dramatically, and concentrated on focusing my training around specific 100-milers. I planned my runs better. I incorporated speed training. I got help from a coach.

My coach, Jason Robillard, is a sub-24 hour Western States finisher and a 100-mile obsessor. He has been guiding my training for a few weeks now and I have been glad to report some great improvements.

We are focusing on increasing both my running and walking speeds, getting faster at mountain summits, and focusing on Chimera 100 in November 2012 as my “A” race.

Before Jason, I was running most comfortably at a 10-12 min mile pace, averaging around 30-mile weeks. I finished 100 miles in 29 hours, and not easily.

I am now comfortable at a 9-min pace, averaging 45 miles per week. I’m aiming to get faster still and boost my weekly mileage to over 50, on trails and mountain summits.

Read More: Jason Robillard Coaching

My joy is to watch small improvements each week. Last week, I hit a 4:45 min/mile pace for about two seconds. I was thrilled because I have never in my life run that fast for any length of time. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat.

About a month ago, I was proud of the fact that I ran so hard up a mountain that I had to puke twice near the top. Another first.

While I want to run better, I don’t particularly want to be an elite. I don’t think I’d like the attention that comes with it. I simply want to explore my potential, get lost in the mountains, and not be afraid of anything. Not even pain.

At the end of the Gladwell article, Salazar holds his hand over an open flame and says, “I feel that just as much as anyone else.”

Sometimes our conception is that elites run effortlessly. We think they can cover a marathon distance and feel fresh, like they just started. But it seems the opposite may be true: Elites are willing to hurt more than anyone else. They are where they are because they are not afraid of pain.

Today, I try to remember that when I run.

I was never elite material, and I’m still not someone you’d want to place your running bets on. Coming from a nerdy, overweight, and shy childhood, I had zero running experience until 2007 when I put on my shoes and tried to run away from a shitty life. By the time I did outrun it, I had fallen in love with running. So I just kept going.

Read More: 7 Lies You Believe About Ultra Running

 Today when I’m running, I think about that elite push. That willingness to suffer. And one thing I do know, whether I’ve experienced an injury or not, is how to suffer.

I know what it means to hit rock bottom, and still muster up the courage to stand. And not just to stand – to run.

I think we all have a little bit of that in us. Think of a life challenge that you may have overcome. A rough past. A problem at work. A shitty childhood. A dark secret. We are survivors.

We know how to endure. How to stand at a start line with senseless, irrational dreams. How to hope for not just a finish, but a win. With no track record or hope in hell… but somehow still believe that we just might.

We know how to grow wings on a barren trail. Turn no’s into maybe’s. And maybe’s into yes.

Definitely yes.

And so we keep running.

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9 responses

  1. i think what a lot of it comes down to is the simple fact that not all pain is significant. knowing when to push your body and when to let it rest is a key wisdom that most elites have mastered.

  2. I was stumble on this site and this article is good i think what a great deal of it comes down to will be the basic reality that not all pain is much. understanding when to push your body and when to let it rest is often a key wisdom that most elites have mastered. I will tweet this blog to my friends. thanks

  3. Thanks Vanessa, I will be thinking about this next month as I am running Lost Soul 100 miler in Lethbridge. My first 100 miler and definitely not my last

  4. Wow! Hit the nail on the head!!! And here I always blamed not pushing harder than I want being due to my lack of testosterone. ;)

  5. Vanessa, I loved what you wrote. Should you continue writing your book and get it published, I would purchase it and encourage others to read it. However, I want to share that for some of us, pain is not reflected in the physical, but the fears we discover about ourselves while trail running. For me pain is being afraid to run alone on mountain lion ridges and in rattle snake infested grass. Pain is stopping to breath on a short, but steep climb up a small hillside when I told myself I wasn’t going to stop. Pain is meeting a sketchy looking man, in the middle of nowhere, while I’m 10 miles from the nearest phone or another person. Pain is getting my monthly cycle every time I finally get my running groove on (and it happens every month). Pain is the fear of getting bored and not being able to find the right running shoe.or knowing that I have to carry that water bottle, when I just don’t flippin’ want to.
    I too, want to be a bad ass trail runner. But you know what, I am just so stoked that I am out there, alone, discovering new things about myself. I suppose I am one of those runners who doesn’t need to endure the actual physical part of the run as much as the mental part of the run. Keep up the great writing. I will stay tuned.

  6. Reblogged this on Running The Cape 2012 and commented:
    “Sometimes our conception is that elites run effortlessly. We think they can cover a marathon distance and feel fresh, like they just started. But it seems the opposite may be true: Elites are willing to hurt more than anyone else. They are where they are because they are not afraid of pain.” Vanessa Runs

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