"Maybe better to reconsider your definition of success, period. For my own part, I decided early on to focus on my devotion to the work above all. That would be how I measured my worth...Do what you love to do, and do it with both seriousness and lightness. At least then you will know that you have tried and that--whatever the outcome--you have traveled a noble path." Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
Whatever the outcome...oof.
When I started running it was solely to lose weight. As I ran and some pounds fell off, I had gained the strength to acknowledge that I was in a pretty deep hole, so I kept running to lift myself out of that. Early on my coach suggested I jump into a 5K and I did, reluctantly. I never started all of this to run races, but I didn't want to say no to him.
I was sick to my stomach at that first start line. Out on that course at the state fairgrounds on a freezing Saturday in November, I ran and walked a looped path among dogs and strollers and families, and among people dressed as Santas and reindeer and Christmas bulbs. But because of how the course was set up I also got glimpses of the people like my coach, out in front running. Racing. Focused. It was mesmerizing and I would pick up my pace to get to the next open spot to get another look. I had some weird feeling inside of me watching those runners.
There was a little beagle dressed as an elf next to me. This dog and her people were clearly enjoying the experience. They would surge ahead, and then I would surge ahead--then them, then me. The difference was, I was putting in an all out effort. I would run as much as I could, then stop and walk, trying to catch my breath. I couldn't run 3.1 miles yet. This little family, on the other hand, was jogging and talking and laughing. They pointed out all the places they liked to go when the state fair was open and would run over to look in the windows of the closed up shops. Each one of them made a bathroom stop, only to race past me again with ease. For whatever reason, I set my sights on them. I didn't know why, I didn't know what was happening, but I kept seeing those top runners and then this beagle in an elf costume and decided that I wasn't going to be beat by a dog, or at least I would die trying. When they stopped at Santa's workshop to grab some treats I thought this was my opportunity. I started to push, which was foreign to me. I was uncomfortable in my own big skin, I was uncomfortable being this visible, but what was most uncomfortable was wanting to beat that little beagle elf so badly. What was happening?
I rounded a corner to a little downhill on the fake streets of the fairgrounds. At the bottom of the hill there was another turn that led into the straightaway to the finish. I was gasping for breath, so far beyond any running I had done up until this point, but I couldn't walk now. The little elf was behind me, but running. Did they have their sights on me? And my coach would be at the finish line. If I really wanted to beat the beagle and make my coach proud I had to keep running.
Up until this point, I just thought I wanted to look different. I didn't know I wanted to be different. I didn't know I had this in me. I didn't now what this was. Turns out, this was competition, a competitive spirit, a competitor. This was ambition and desire. This was a drive to do well and succeed.
I crossed the finish line running. I crossed ahead of the elf. It took me 42 minutes to complete the course. All the way home I thought about the next race. All the way home I thought about running the whole thing; what would that be like?! I was so pleased to have outrun that dog. I felt emptied out and full. I felt some new wheel turning inside of me. Or maybe some old wheel shaking off the rust and coming back to life.
It took quite a few more races before I identified what was churning: I wanted to succeed. I wanted to be good at this. I wanted to get better and better. I wanted to win.
Fast forward five years, and here I sit at my computer with the words whatever the outcome spinning through my head--the idea that effort and dedication might be the measure of my success, whatever the outcome. That in the things that mean the most to me, running & writing, the only control I have is in the work I put in. That perhaps running's greatest gift to me is learning to stay in my own lane and measure my success by my effort and dedication, whatever the outcome. And that I might want to grab on to that running lesson and apply it to writing, whatever the outcome. I love running, and I love writing. They found me and made themselves known and, in turn, I'm devoted to them. Isn't that success? In both of those realms, no one sees the work I do, really. The daily devotion and discipline are mine alone. I haven't stood on a podium. I am not published. If I devote myself to these two things I've been given, but I never get conventional rewards, am I not still successful?
The question marks are me grappling with this idea. I believe it to be true, but I so badly want to feel it as true.
This past weekend I ran a trail race in the bluffs along the Mississippi River. The race is 10 miles long--two 5 mile loops, with about 650 ft of elevation gain per loop. It's kind of a tough course, tough for me for sure. And I had some history with this race. This is my infamous (well, infamous to my coach and I) "Diane, you need a f**king attitude adjustment" race from two years ago. The beauty of running, for me, are the endless gifts it gives--gifts that can be lifted right off the trail or the road and plunked into the middle of your life. The gifts are big and small, and when I ran this race two years ago I got a big gift, through running, delivered by my coach, that really changed the trajectory of my life. Yes, my life. Not just my running life, my whole life.
So going into this race my sole goal was to run the whole thing with a great attitude. That's not a stretch these days, nevertheless, I felt like that bluff needed a cleansing and I dubbed it my redemption run. Two years ago I was in fighting shape and I trained for this race. This time, I'm still a little beat up from my big summer adventure and my ultra, I've got some extra weight, and am not feeling in peak health. And I'm two years older. But my attitude is lighter and grateful, so in the back of my mind I was going to crush my time from two years ago.
Well, there was no time crush. I ran fine. I ran happy. My body hurt a lot during the race, in fact it hurt way more than it did during the 24 hour ultra. But it didn't affect my attitude. I noticed the pain and felt it, but it was just an observation, just like the sun is out and I like the sound of my feet landing on the trail. In fact, when when I came through the aid station at the 2.5 mile marker, the volunteers said "There's a happy runner!" And the second loop through they said "There's our happy runner again!" Confirmation from the running gods that I was on the right track. Redemption.
The pain was real, however, and the in last two miles of the race it took a little more work to keep my perspective. I could see that I was not going to come in under my time from two years ago, and it was weird how much more difficult it was for me to run this 10 mile race than it was to run for 24 hours. As I ran down the hill to the finish I could feel my emotions swell. I was the last runner to come in; a feeling I know all too well. There were volunteers lining the chute, and also runners who had finished and stayed on to cheer. (That is the beauty of the running community). I was able to graciously accept my medal and the cheers, but I made my way to the car pretty quickly as the tears began to flow. And flow. And flow. What was this about? I was redeemed, right? I ran this race in a totally new frame of mind and I met my goal: Redemption. Success. But I did not feel successful. I felt embarrassed. And lumbering. My body hurt. My feelings were hurt. I've been at this 5 years. Yes, I know this isn't linear, success isn't linear. You ebb and you flow. And that applies to all runners at all levels. The difference is, the pro and elite and even above average runners end up on podiums. We say that isn't the measure of success, but those are the athletes we highlight. They are either on a podium, or on their way to a podium, or fell off a podium and are making their way back to a podium, or they use to be on a podium, and that's what makes a story.
There are many runners, I'm sure, who are not driven by this. But there are many who are. There are many above average and average and below average runners who are devoted and dedicated, who are all in, who want to make that podium, but won't. We tell those people that it doesn't matter, it shouldn't matter, it's not the end game. But then we never tell their stories, so how can they believe that it's true? We have so much to learn from elite runners, but we have so much to learn from these runners, too.
At the base of it all, people just want to be seen, I think. I'm not talking about being famous. I'm not talking about being popular or sought after. I'm talking about being seen and valued for what you are accomplishing. And if we define success by only a podium story, then we are missing a lot of good stories.
So, full disclosure here: I want to be on a podium. It's not my only driver, not by a long shot. But it's one of the drivers. And I like it. It keeps me asking myself: What else can I do? How much further can I go? And then what I gather along the way to finding out what else I can do is the stuff that makes my life rich and full. It's the stuff that keeps expanding the ceiling of my limits. It stokes that competitor in me that got awakened 5 years ago when I outran that beagle. But it also creates a paradox, which is what I was feeling deeply in the car after my race: I want some traditional accolades that are proof of the work I do. I want to feel good about the runner that I am if I never get those.
So what do I do with this paradox? Live with it, I guess : ) Wins and podiums are right and good. Professional athletics matter. I run too. Cleansing a bluff of my bad vibes is a worthy cause. And sometimes you cry after races because you want something so badly and you come up short. I want to win. And I want to measure my worth at the end of the day by my effort and dedication, and mean it.
Wanting something badly is vulnerable, no matter where you fall on the running spectrum, or the life spectrum. Going all in on both is noble. Whatever the outcome.