“My one piece of advice? Step in a puddle early,” I overheard a seasoned-looking trail runner say to a fellow racer. It had flash-flooded the day before the race and we were at the starting line, about to embark on 30 kilometers of slippery mud and flooded trails.
I’m not a step-in-the-puddle kind of girl. And we weren’t talking about little puddles that get the bottoms of your shoes wet. This was standing, murky water that went up past your ankles. And it was in the mid-40s outside. So it was cold, standing, murky water. Under any other circumstances, I would be like, no thank you, no puddles for me. I’ll be tiptoeing around those for the whole race.
But because I am not a seasoned trail runner, I was very open to any advice anyone might be able to give me that cold December morning. So, once the race started, the first puddle I saw, I closed my eyes, felt my body brace for the cold, and stepped right in it. I might have let out a little gasp from how cold it was, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. In fact it was a little thrilling. My feet were wet, but other than that I was totally fine. I could now cross puddles off my list of things to worry about. Check.
A few minutes later I hit my first muddy climb. It was a ridiculous, comical, impossible slog through heavy, slippery mud going uphill and then an out-of-control sloppy slide downhill. Repeat over and over again for 30k. After a while, I rejoiced when I saw a puddle because it meant I could rinse off some of the caked on mud that was making my legs feel like they weighed 200 pounds each.
Throughout the race I kept thinking about the advice of stepping in a puddle early and my natural inclination toward doing just the opposite–in life and in running. Stepping in a puddle feels like a mistake, like something to be avoided. It reminds me of that scene in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray steps off the curb into a big slushy puddle over and over again until finally, because he is living the same day on repeat, he learns how to avoid it.
I am a puddle avoider. For me, puddles equal discomfort and fear of the unknown. They make me anxious. What if that puddle causes me to have blisters? What if it makes my toes cold? Then what will happen? It could be terrible. It could lead to failure. I might not be able to finish the race, and I will be humiliated and embarrassed and have wasted $90.
Therefore, my brain does a quick calculation and says, “avoid all puddles. I repeat, no stepping in puddles at any cost.”
But I was in such a vulnerable place at the start of that race–a trail running newbie open to any and all suggestions for how to tackle this impossible, gross task that lay before me. I was so open to ideas at that point that I would listen to a stranger telling me to submerge half my leg in freezing water at the beginning of a race. Not even telling me, telling another stranger. I was just eavesdropping, soaking up any tips anyone might be throwing out there.
That race was the hardest race I’ve ever run. It felt lonely and scary and it hurt. Each muddy step felt like an obstacle to overcome. I was so happy when it was over. But I’m also so happy I ran it because I’m still drawing on the experience of it, the lessons it taught me. That little race in the woods was one of my proudest and most favorite achievements because I pushed past my comfort zone, way past. And that, in my experience, is where the really good stuff happens (unfortunately).
Last night I read this passage in Born to Run and thought of my muddy race and the next even longer, even scarier 50k that I have coming up this weekend.
“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.” -William James
That quote sums up perfectly why I love long-distance running. It’s not that I am a masochist and just want to torture myself. It’s that I know from experience that the discomfort you feel is not a wall, it’s a door that you can choose to go through. And what’s on the other side of that door is pretty awesome.
I love this description of running a 62-mile race in Haruki Murakami’s running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:
“While I was enduring all this, around the forty-seventh mile I felt like I’d passed through something. That’s what it felt like. Passed through is the only way I can express it. Like my body had passed clean through a stone wall. At what exact point I felt like I’d made it through, I can’t recall, but suddenly I noticed I was already on the other side. I was convinced I’d made it through. I don’t know about the logic, or the process, or the method involved–I was simply convinced of the reality that I’d passed through. After that I didn’t have to think anymore. Or, more precisely, there wasn’t the need to try to consciously think about not thinking. All I had to do was go with the flow and I’d get there automatically. If I gave myself up to it, some sort of power would naturally push me forward.”
Marukami goes on to describe how during the last portion of his race he is basically able to turn off his brain and pretend like he is a running machine. Once he can separate his anxious mind from his body, he’s able to keep putting one foot in front of the other and make it to the finish line.
As someone who lets their anxious mind dictate much of the decision-making, I enjoy the way long-distance races force me to turn off those thoughts. They force me to be brave. Races force me to run through puddles, to push past what I think I am capable of, and they force me to ignore that little voice in my head that wants me to avoid making a mistake or being uncomfortable.
This blog forces me to do that too. It is very uncomfortable sharing thoughts I probably would not share with people in normal conversation. It makes me feel exposed and vulnerable in a way that I deeply try to avoid in real life. Feeling exposed and vulnerable is like a giant puddle that I do my best to tiptoe around. But on the other side of that vulnerability there is the awesome feeling of being known. When someone tells me they’ve read my blog, it makes me blush and want to hide under a chair, but then after that feeling subsides, it makes me feel wonderfully known and understood. That feeling is so good, that I’m willing to risk writing again.
What would happen if we decided to stop avoiding puddles and chose to go right through them? What wall are you up against that might actually be a door? I am all about the metaphors today, but I’m not really talking about puddles and doors in case you’re confused. I’m talking about the areas of your life that feel like barriers, keeping you safely and securely in your cozy status quo. What are the places in your life that feel like they could never possibly be different, so you avoid challenging them, stepping into the mess of them? Did you ever imagine that maybe there was something on the other side?
I love the saying “We can do hard things.” A naysayer might say, but why do hard things? Hard things are hard and might expose our weaknesses or make us look bad. Let’s stick to easy things! Easy things make us look like we know what we’re doing. Maybe that’s true to a degree. But I’m guessing the stories that you are proudest of, your defining moments, the times you felt like you were on top of the world were not easy accomplishments. And there were likely some puddles you stepped in along the way to get there.