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Curtains and Walls

I was in my early thirties. I was going through a very painful and complicated breakup. Work was going great, but that success came with an increase in expectations, responsibility, and pressure. Proverbially speaking, it was the best of times and the worst of times.

So, I started running. Running helped to keep my health on track and “burn-off” my excess energy and stress. I had played football and rugby and spent some time in the military, but I never liked running for running’s sake. I had always seen it as either a necessary evil for training or a punishment. Now, I embraced it. The repetitive monotony of putting one foot in front of the other helped to sooth my overactive brain and melt my stress in streams of sweat. For several years I ran three miles every day. That seemed like plenty to help me stay physically and mentally fit .

Also, as a self-described “non-runner”, I didn’t think I had the natural physical chops to push out much further than that. After all, “I wasn’t a runner”.

One day, I was out on one of my usual 5K runs and decided to take a different road than usual. After a while, I realized I was lost and far from home. I hadn’t brought my phone to give me directions. To make matters worse, I was hosting the monthly poker game that night and the guys would be showing up at my house in short order. I didn’t want to leave my friends waiting in my driveway with warm beer and cold pizza. I also didn’t want them to know that I’d gotten lost in my own “neighborhood”. I live in a very rural area, but getting lost in my own stomping grounds was pretty embarrassing.

After standing around for a few minutes, cursing and fruitlessly trying estimate my return time, I realized there was only one thing to do: start running again. I wasn’t going to fix anything without moving. Eventually, I found a road I recognized, oriented myself, and put one foot in front of the other for about triple the time of any run prior to that night. I didn’t walk. I kept a solid pace and made it home with just enough time to shower and get ready to lose at poker.

When I retraced the unplanned route I had taken home, I realized that I’d run nearly nine miles. I was astonished. After running three miles a day for several years, and feeling pretty darn tired every time I was done, I just assumed that was my upper limit. I had always primarily been a weightlifter and contact sports guy: great at hitting people and picking up heavy things and putting them back down again, but totally not a runner. Every coach I’d ever had told me that, and I believed it.

Now, I had just run nine miles; triple the distance I thought was my upper limit. That distance is no big feat in the running world, but for me it was huge.

I thought, “All this time, I was able to run three times farther than I thought I could?” If I could run nine miles, could I run twelve? More?

In the years that followed, I trained harder and soon ran my first trail marathon, and then another. Then, I was running the minimum ultra-marathon races of around thirty-three plus miles. To boot, I was running on often rough mountain trails and was really into the minimalist “barefoot” Five-Fingers shoes that I once thought were ridiculous. I love me some workout fads.

Soon I was getting bored and ready for a new challenge. One day, on a bit of a whim, I signed up for the sixty-two-mile (100K) Pine Creek Challenge race. It’s a beautiful course through Pennsylvania’s “Grand Canyon of the East”, the Pine Creek Gorge. They also offer a one-hundred-mile race for the real masochists and athletic freaks of nature.

I was excited for the race and ready to run. There was one minor problem. I was very busy and in the midst of finishing my Ph.D., and I hadn’t made any major increases in my normal thirty-three-mile training regimen in the months leading up to the race.

I was getting kind of cocky about running at this point, so I figured, “Meh, I’ll just gut it out.” How much different could it be in terms of pain and suffering? (…Which is the real challenge of very long-distance running, not cardio.)

When I toed the starting-line I was pumped and confident. Bang! We were off. After a few miles I knew that I was running a little faster than my normal pace, which almost always put me toward the back of the middle-of-the-pack. I never ran to win. To survive and finish with a respectable time was good enough for me. But after a few hours, I realized that I was at the back of the lead pack, which in a race like this is a huge leap. Beyond the lead pack is usually a super-elite group, usually less than ten people, actually running to win. I saw those folks at start and never saw them again.

Now, here I was, hanging with some serious running super-studs in the lead pack. I thought back to that day when I first got lost on a three-mile run. Maybe now, just like then, I had far more capacity than I realized. Perhaps, I just needed to believe and go for it. So, picked up my pace even more. Soon I was flying toward the middle of the lead-pack, taking only the briefest stops at aid stations and ignoring some entirely. I was filled with one of those rare moments of euphoria that often come at odd times in races like this. I felt like a superhero.

And then, everything came apart.

First, one of my calves started to cramp. Then the other. Soon, my legs were not really obeying my brain’s commands. I was still mentally committed to running. My will was strong, but my body started to behave strangely. I had never experienced anything like it. It was like each of my limbs were telling my brain, “Nope, we’re done listening to you.” They each kind of started doing their own thing. Quickly, my brief euphoria wore off, and I now was in an utter and complete world of hurt – mentally and physically. I was still trying to shuffle along, and not rest. It was so bad, that other runners that I’d left in the dust hours before started to stop and check on me. “Dude…. Are you ok?” I think I just grunted and moaned like an extra in the Walking Dead. Eventually, they would run on with great concern or horror in their eyes.

Soon I found myself beneath a tree at what would be my last aid station, unable to move my legs due to the worst full-body cramps I had ever had to that point or since. Perhaps I could have waited it all out, took some salts, water, and food and recovered. It probably would have worked. But mentally, I was done. I quit. It was the only DNF (did not finish) in all the races I’ve run. To boot, I had only run about thirty-three miles – no more than my last race and probably with a worse time.

I’d gone from hero to feeling like a zero in the span of a few hours. I took the van of shame back to the parking lot and shambled back to my Jeep. That was that.

Painful as it was, I’d learned something very important. Some limits are matters of perception and mindset. We’re capable of much more in our current state and we just need to believe that we can do it, or be put into an unexpected situation where we have to perform at a higher level. These limits are like curtains. When we realize they are not solid, we can sweep them aside or simply run through them.

Other limits are like walls. They refuse to be easily dismissed. We must either do the work to scale them or break them. What we can’t do is run through them. When we reach a wall there’s a true developmental gap that can only be crossed with great effort, practice, and the hard-earned acquisition of new abilities.

Training for a thirty-three-mile race, signing up for a sixty-two-mile race, and running like it was a six-mile race is the perfect example. That race at that pace is doable, but I hadn’t put in the work to make it doable by me. I hadn’t respected the distance or the people who trained properly to run it. I thought I could breeze in and do what they do with less sacrifice and effort. I was wrong and learned a painful lesson as I ran into that wall at full speed in Pine Creek Gorge.

In leadership, business, and life we are going to encounter a multitude of walls and curtains if we are committed to making Relentless Forward Progress (check out this book even if you’re not a runner). And there is one essential leadership attribute that is the key to telling the difference: humility. I ran headlong into a wall at Pine Creek, because I failed in humility. I failed to recognize or accept, that to reach the next level of performance, I couldn’t just coast. I had to put in the work, just like everyone else. We all have natural talents or past successes we can stand on. But some walls are so high, they require a new commitment to work and development, not just mindset.

What got us here, won’t get us there. In that new place over the wall, there are no coasters or imposters. The only people going to what's next are the ones who earn it.

I’m coming back Pine Creek. And unlike last time, I’ll be ready.

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