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More than a Finish Line

In a sport where every stilted footstep and every labored breath is focused on completing an event before a competitor, faster than your previous best, or simply completing a certain distance for the first time, it seems contradictory to put your emphasis on anything besides that finish-line arch. Runners are renowned for their pursuit of excellence: From obsessively playing Yahtzee to reach insanely high scores, to hammering out perfectly paced repeats on a track or local park, most of us could view our own commitment to success as rather remarkable (though some might more accurately diagnose it as borderline-obsessive). All the sweat, the scheming, and the science were designed for one purpose: To reach the finish line at our anticipated goal time. This attention to detail has garnered for many of us an enviable collection of medals, PRs, course records, age-group awards and a confidence in our abilities that we may not have earned otherwise, But for this author, participating in my first 100-miler turned all my previous knowledge inside-out and upside-down. It was after reaching the finish line of my longest and toughest race, that I learned the most important lessons in running have virtually nothing to do with a stopwatch.

Relationships in Running

Some runners tackle their first 100-mile race without pacers or crew, but I knew that a successful finish would require all the help I could get. They say it takes a village to raise a child; well, if that is true, then it takes an army to help a runner complete a 100-miler. From race directors who dealt with incoming storms, recent forest fires, and course changes, to aid-station volunteers who could never have prepared for two straight days of September snowfall, there truly was a platoon of dedicated volunteers and workers making the impossible seem plausible.

The most appreciated assistance came from the hands of my devoted pacers and crew: running buddies, family and friends who generously sacrificed a weekend out of their busy lives to accompany me. Stumbling into each aid station, seeing my crew covered in mud as they huddled in the bitter cold, was both humbling and inspiring. Somehow they were always happy to see me, unfailingly positive and unceasingly attentive to every detail requested of them, be it an umbrella, a change of socks, or a bowl of soup.

And yet as powerful as their service was during the race, it was only after the event, viewing the videos and pictures, that I truly realized the gift that I had been given. Watching my dear wife stooping down in the mud repeatedly as rain fell around her, changing my socks and carefully wiping mud off my frozen, swollen feet. Acknowledging the dedication of a brother who left behind children, even missing his daughter’s final soccer game so that he could film every bit of my race, documenting the experiences of both racer and crew. Realizing that the dry socks and insoles given to me at mile 54 were the result of my buddy spending hours with his nose plugged, patiently holding smelly items over a propane heater to prepare them for my arrival. Seeing my devoted friend with half-closed eyes as she ate breakfast following a night of selfless service to my goals, even when she could easily have been at home unpacking the house that she had purchased the day before. And I can’t forget my devoted pacers, who, all told, ran 61 miles by my side, pushing me when I was weak, accepting me when I was strong, forgiving me when I was cranky, and hysterically laughing while falling with me when the path was too muddy to stay upright for more than two steps at a time.

All these angels spent a day and a night struggling to stay awake not for their dream, but for mine. What would this race have been like without them? In short; while not quite meaningless, it would not have been nearly the same incredible experience. Standing there, on the finish line after nearly 30 hours of struggle, was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life… But not in the sense that I had expected. Because unlike previous races, this accomplishment belonged to my team as much as it belonged to me.

Lessons Learned

Prior to the race, family, coworkers, and even strangers alike asked me “Why would you run 100 miles?” My previous answers to this question seem completely inaccurate when compared to the truths that I now hold sacred. To quote my pal Cody, as he reflected on his own experience at the 2016 ‘Bear 100’: “It seems like a long way to go to find a friend.” To this statement, I feel compelled to wonder “But is it really?” What distance is ‘too far’ to forge a solid relationship? If 30 hours of struggle and nearly-hypothermic running accompanied by 55+ miles of shin splints and an upset stomach are all it takes to forge a solid relationship then, by all means, sign me up for a 100-miler every week for the rest of my life! Because hidden underneath the mud and the pain, floating in my chicken broth and tucked inside my frozen wool socks, I found a finish line far greater than I could ever have imagined.

It might seem contradictory to state that the farther I run, the less and less it seems to be about ‘running,’ (at least as I used to know it). The fast times, the perfect pacing, the medals, the finish lines--all fade in priority when compared to the lessons that I’ve learned and the ways I am changing as a husband, a brother, a son, and as a friend. While I am hopeful that running will continue to bring me more PRs and age-group awards, I will be forever grateful to the 2016 “Polar Bear 100” for the intrinsic gifts it bestowed to me, those hard-earned awards that, while not displayed in my living room trophy-case, will forever be kept safe in the recesses of my hypertrophied heart.

By Jeremy "Coach" Smith

Palisades Ultra Trail Series RD

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