What I Know Now: Lessons from Ten Years of Lacing Up and Hitting the Road

Dear Adam,

I’m writing to you exactly ten years from now. For you it is the morning of Sunday, May 15, 2011. You’re grumpy. It’s probably 5 am and you’re not a morning person. Outside it is cold, maybe 50 degrees and drizzly. You are not feeling too enthusiastic about running 13.1 miles in it. You are not feeling particularly enthusiastic about running 13.1 miles, period. You don’t know it yet, but that grumpiness you are feeling, it’s about to melt away.

You won’t know it for a few hours but this is going to be one of those dividing lines in your life and that fact is going to hit you out of the blue. Usually these dates come with some sort of planning like a wedding or a birth. Not today. You have spent the last four months training and largely disliking it. You’ve been sore and tired and irritated that this takes time away from your friends and family, from bars and staying out late and just sort of doing whatever you feel like. You have not been able to fathom why anyone would do this for fun. Ah buddy, you have no idea how many hours you will soon be giving up to the simple act of tying your running shoes and heading out to repeat the tedious and glorious act of putting one foot in front of the other over and over and over again.

Enjoy these last few moments as the old you because by the time you walk back inside the side door at home hours from now you will not be the same person anymore. You’ll be sore as hell. You’ve be exhausted. You’ll be so hungry that nothing in the fridge is safe. And you’re going to be trying to find new races to run. The hour and thirty-nine minutes and forty-eight seconds you spend on that race course are going to change you. You are going to cross the finish line and bawl your eyes out, dumbfounded that you were able to cover those 13.1 miles, relieved that after a year where so little seems to have gone right, this one thing did. You will be a runner. I’m serious. From this moment forward that will be how you see yourself, as a runner.

Below is a little list. It’s my black book, your black book, of insights, lessons, and stories from ten years of chasing the high you are about to experience. There’s been so much good. Plenty of bad too. It has been a decade of big wins, misery, pain, comebacks, triumphs, and growth. Not everyone will understand all these points. That’s ok. It’s for you; you created it. It’s been a wild ride and the best part, and I know you still won’t believe me quite yet, is that a decade later you cannot wait to see what the next ten years on the run hold for you.

  • You have no idea what you are about to unleash at a moment when you’re so uncertain that this is even for you. I know I already covered this in my little introduction, but it is true. You truly do not think this running thing is for you. Part of you debated skipping out. Who the hell runs in weather like this? You’re going to brush past that uncertainty. It will be one of the best decisions you ever make.
  • Trust the timing of life events. I know this sounds new agey, but hear me out. The invitation to start training for that first race could only have happened the year it happened. A year earlier and you’d still have been in grad school, putting in 16-18 hour days and unable to fathom training for a half marathon. A year later, and the Christmas party where Jen first asked you to train with her never happens because Jen and Bob (not their names) are no longer married. For some reason the timing just worked.
  • You ran a race pace run yesterday. The pace of your warm up miles was faster than the race pace you run in that first race. It is amazing the progress that can be made in a decade.
  • The benefits will exist far beyond running. You are going to discover a love of hiking that comes directly from finding new routes to run in the Cuyahoga Valley. You’re going to come to love cooking and gardening because you’re going to value eating well to fuel your workouts. You’ll discover meditation as a means to improve your performance and it’s going to bring a calmness and presence to your life that opens you to possibilities that previously would have been drowned out by anxiety. The decision to run is going to be a stone thrown into a pond and the ripples from it that continue improve your life a decade later are still expanding outward.
  • And the thinkers you’re going to discover…. You have always grown through your reading and with running that will continue. You’ll read about great runners, yes, but you’ll branch out and read some tremendous thinkers and learn from their work on individual facets of performance. Charles Duhigg and James Clear will introduce methods for building better habits and although you still chafe at having too much structure, building good habits is going to unlock some big performance upgrades. You’re going to be introduced to Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg and their easy to understand approach to building marginal gains to improve performance. You’ll trust them so much that when they recommend other writers you’ll buy those books without question. That’s how you’ll discover David Epstein’s Range which will help you shift your mindset on the skills you’ve developed through jobs that most people would look down upon. That will help you gain the confidence to pursue nutrition coaching. Brad’s struggles with mental health will lead him to recommend Mark Freeman’s book You Are Not a Rock and that book will completely shift how you feel about your own struggles with anxiety and to formulate a plan to make small, daily progress toward understanding your thoughts and acting based on the things you value most. Maybe you would have discovered some of these people even without running. But it will be running that introduces you to many of them. Again, those expanding ripples.
  • Don’t wait until you’re ready. You are never going to know everything you want to know. Work hard, ask important questions, try and hope to succeed. If you fail, be humble enough to learn and courageous enough to dust yourself off and try again.
  • Stress + rest = growth. It really is that simple.
  • Embrace the suck. There’s no way the repetitive nature of running can lend itself to runs being great every day. A lot of days they suck. A lot of races are going to suck. Just keep showing up. The payoff is worth it.
  • If a lot of it sucks why show up? Because hard does not equal bad.
  • Train to your lifestyle. You will learn this way too late. Sitting for long periods of time while you’re teaching is going to lead to quite a few injuries and cost you most of 2013. Working for long stretches in the service industry is going to lead to imbalances in your back. It’s not enough to strength train just for your running. You have to make sure you train to handle the impact that your lifestyle is going to have on your running. The sooner you learn this, the faster your running will take off.
  • Running is going to make you a better coach. Coaching is going to make you a better runner. The coaching side will help to remind you as a competitive athlete that there’s a bigger picture your training and progress often cannot be forced. It must be earned and learned, often through hard lessons. Your work as a competitive runner will help calm down the impatience you have as a coach. When you are living the ups and downs of competition it will be much easier to have empathy for what your boys are experiencing.
  • Canadian geese are, understandably, assholes once their chicks hatch. Give them as much space as you can when you run past them. Seriously. They hiss and chase and bite.
  • When you visit someplace new, head out for a run. You can cover more ground than walking and can experience more intimate details than if you drive. Years after you run Charleston in the early morning hours you’ll still be able to smell the barbecue that restaurants were starting to prepare that day.
  • Compare yourself only to previous versions of yourself.
  • When you feel off or in sustained pain for more than a month seek an expert opinion. You won’t want to spend the money but the money will more than make up for the bad moods and anguish you feel when you are not confident in your running.
  • When it comes to the extra stuff, keep it simple. Mobilize a few tight spots. Do a few exercises to strengthen your core, hips, and butt. It is easy to get caught up in wanting to have the perfect strength and mobility program. But running takes up so much time already that if you try to be perfect you’ll just never do it consistently and then you’ll never enjoy the benefits. Small actions repeated daily will take care of what you need.
  • Consistency compounds. Show up when you don’t feel like it. Des said it best.
  • People make the race. You’ll feel this when you get to the start line today. There’s nothing like the energy of a race. All those runners. Spectators taking time out of their schedules to cheer on strangers. When you run your first race after the COVID pandemic (that’s a whole other letter, just be ready for a wild ride in 2020) it will be the feeling of being around people that you treasure most.
  • What they say about being kind to strangers because you never know what someone is going through is absolutely true. Chris from Michigan is going to see you near your breaking point at Mile 24 of your first marathon, frozen, hurt, and unsure if you can make it and tell you “Let’s take this in together.” It will be one of the nicest of most special memories you ever make on a race course.
  • Speaking of memories on a race course, don’t buy photos from Marathon Foto immediately after a race. It’s a racket. Three months later they’ll let you buy three photos for the price of one. Just be patient if the photos are that important. And really, the post-run snapshots with family and friends are more meaningful anyway. Oh, and the beer. The post-race beer is definitely more meaningful than spending $50 for a picture.
  • The beer is meaningful even if it is washed out Mich Ultra.
  • You’ll be amazed at how many people have orbited near you for so long that never crossed your path that suddenly you can’t imagine your life without. This comes out when you trade race stories.
  • We’ll see. You are going to have setbacks and swear that they’re the worst thing that could have happened. They’ll often set the stage for something better. You will have triumphs and believe you’ve cracked the code to running the perfect race and instead the bottom will fall out. Eventually you’ll get wise and take the good and bad in stride. What does any given moment mean? We’ll see.
  • Carry a notebook with you and leave it in the car to jot down all the random thoughts that enter your head when you’re out running. You’re going to do a lot of thinking out on the run and if you don’t have that notebook you’ll forget most of it.
  • Progress isn’t linear. In training you’re building a floor and a ceiling. If you train well and don’t get hurt and you’re a little lucky, your race will get you close to that ceiling. Sometimes the race is going to be much closer to the floor. Do not despair. You still put in the work, you still grew, and that floor can be the foundation for a much better race performance next time.
  • You’re going to start running during a golden age of American runners. Their talent is what is going to bring them to your attention. Their authenticity is what is going to make you love them. The part of you that has often felt unsure of yourself around others is going to think about this often.
  • A New York Marathon and Boston Marathon champion and Olympic medalist is going to see you wearing a Boston Strong t shirt one day and, when you tell him that you haven’t made it to Boston yet, he’ll tell you that you’re going to make it there someday, that he believes in you. This will sustain you through the worst that running can throw at you.
  • Years after he wins Boston in 2014, a year after the attacks, you’ll still watch highlights of his win and tear up. God I love you, Meb.
  • You’ll also think of his story as a refugee fleeing war-torn Eritrea and how him winning all that he won as a US citizen represents the best of what America can be.
  • You’re going to experience so much pain. Sprains, tears, pulls. A dog is going to bite you on a training run. You will see an x-ray of your spine where it looks like it is taking a detour around a car accident. Rotated hips. A hip flexor strain is going to ruin your first marathon and you’re going to trudge to the finish line in 25 mph winds and snow. Thunder snow, actually. On one run in 2012 you will literally feel your right glute twist itself into a tangle of spaghetti. This will introduce you to the pain cave that you enter when you roll with a lacrosse ball. Calf cramps, stomach cramps; a spasm in your hamstring so intense that you cannot flex your leg.
  • In overcoming that pain you’re going to discover you’re more resilient than you could possibly imagine. It’s like Alfred says in Batman Begins: “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
  • Shortly after your race today you are going to discover the Boston Marathon and that you have to qualify to enter the race and you will drive toward this goal with a single-minded determination from this moment forward. When you get your first BQ in 2018 you will believe without reservation that you’re in. So when an email comes in September of that year telling you that you missed the cutoff by two seconds, well, you’ll see. After your heart falls back into your chest where it belongs you’ll lace up and run. The day called for an easy run so that’s what you’ll do. In the worst of times, there is always you and the road.
  • Don’t hold onto the goal too tightly. That email will not be the first time you miss out on Boston. It will happen again a year later and at that point, so close but not quite there, you will start to lose sight of why you love this sport. You will start to run through pain you shouldn’t run through. You will lose your love of the simple act of heading out the door to run. Then when that pandemic I told you about hits and races are cancelled, you’ll lose all love of running entirely. Without a race to run and a BQ to pursue you’ll just stop. It’s ok. You’ll get over it. The love of hiking I told you about? You’ll turn to that and remember what it is like to do something for the sheer joy of loving it, without hope of external reward. That reminder will take you back to running. Today you’re more in love with the sport than you ever have been.
  • Do not construct your identity around results. When the races go well, you’ll feel invincible. Many races, however, will not. You will fail, but you will not be a failure. Failure is simply feedback. Learn, process, go again.
  • Trust the process. Enjoy the process. Trust that you’re a badass that can handle when the process doesn’t deliver what you wanted it to.
  • Focus on what you can control. As much as it will upset your Type A personality to give up control of anything, the sooner you realize that energy wasted on things you have no control over takes you out of the moment the happier you’ll be and the quicker your performances improve.
  • Continuous disappointment makes eventual success that much sweeter. It is going to take you four years to break 1:30:00 in the half marathon, despite coming really close two years earlier. That continued disappointment that drags you down early? I promise it melts away when you finally clear that hurdle you’ve spent so much time pursuing. Acceptance into Boston? Ten years later you still haven’t gotten there, but you have an inkling of what it’s going to feel like when you someday open that acceptance email.
  • Running is going to break that paint by numbers, I-know-how-this-is-going-to-work-out living you did in your 20’s. You train, you race, and when it doesn’t go well you discover how simple the next step is. You get up and go again. I know the you standing at that first start line isn’t going to believe me, that it can’t be that simple. You’ll someday see that it is.
  • The shit you’re going to run through. Driving rain, snow, wind so strong you feel like you’re running in place. Wind so strong that you have to hurdle a trash can bowling down the road at you. Did I mention snow? Thunder snow. Sub-zero wind chills from a polar vortex that force you to bundle up like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. On that day your scarf will push your breath up into your eyes and frost over your glasses. Maybe running outside that day wasn’t a good idea. Cyclists who won’t move over for you. Cars that run you off the road. Did I mention that dog biting you?
  • Pain in one area of the body is often a result of neglecting something far more important elsewhere. This is true in life too. Worry less about fixing the pain and more about solving the cause of it.
  • Not where you want to be? You’re not ready. This sounds cruel. You’re going to put your best effort into a training cycle and then not get what you deserve. The hard work is not wasted though. You’ll have learned and, if the race didn’t go well, find a weakness somewhere that needs attention. That’s how you get to where you want to be. How do you know when you are ready? I’m not sure. You just sort of know it.
  • You’re going to be in better shape at 38 than you were at 18. Given what soccer doubles used to look like, this is going to amaze you. Just celebrate it.
  • Cormac McCarthy: Scared money can’t win and a worried man can’t love. (Thanks to Scott Fauble showing off his tat on Instagram for directing me to my 2021 mantra)
  • Herb Brooks: Great moments are born of great opportunity.
  • You’re going to embrace a new relationship with fear. You won’t stop being afraid. You won’t stop being anxious. You’ll just recognize that you can be afraid (the feeling) but you are not actually afraid (an identity). This is how you’ll learn to overcome the worries that weather or an injury or calf cramps are going to derail the race of a lifetime after a year of training. You won’t, as a friend simply stated, let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game. This way you won’t waste mental energy on fearing what could happen and simply have faith that your efforts are enough to make happen what you want to make happen.
  • Starting a running podcast with your friend Andrew is going to add so much value to your running. It’s going to introduce you to a running community that has otherwise been hard to build while working when most people are playing. That community will mean more than you can imagine.
  • Run toward what brings out the best in you. You’re going to give up things as you get deeper and deeper into running. It will take up more time. It will demand more energy. You’ll stay out later less often. You’ll drink less. Some friendships that we held together by those things will fall by the wayside. You can’t stay in one place forever. The people that stick around for who you grow into though? They may not fully get running, but they’ll get what it does for you, so they’ll be there to celebrate the great races and comfort you after the awful ones. Running is how you grow into that next chapter of who you are meant to be. The ones that come along for the ride? They mean everything.
  • It may just be you on the race course, but a team gets you to the starting line. Friends will be sounding boards for training questions. Family and friends will be gracious when marathon training takes over your life, when you can’t stay out late on a Saturday night because tomorrow is long run day. When you’re still living at home after you leave teaching, you’ll have to run 16 miles before working a double and come back from the run to find that Mom cooked breakfast. Actually, poor Mom and Dad probably know as much about my training as I do because I have to externally process things. When you go on vacation the people you love will accept that days sometimes have to be structured around the ten-mile tempo run you need to get in. They just accept it without question because it is what you need to do to get to the start line ready. This means everything.
  • This is how you’ll figure out life. This is the great thing about a sport that requires so much time and effort. There are no shortcuts. There is plenty of time to work and play and try and fail and succeed. Within all those miles and that experience, you’re going to figure out a lot about what makes you tick and what makes you, well, you.
  • There’s always another run. Good run? Bad run? Go to sleep. Lace up tomorrow. We go again.