50(ish) Things I Learned about Coming Home from War by Running 50 Miles

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Once Brett and I got to the 36-mile mark, we entered uncharted territory. Neither one of us had ever run so far, and neither one of us knew how our bodies would respond. With every stride, we were redefining what was possible for us.

With that exhilarating sense of accomplishment also came the realization that we still had 14 miles to go. “I think I’m burning my matches,” I told Brett, my best friend and a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s an old adage in ultra-endurance racing that each athlete starts a race with a book of matches. It is said that whenever you put out an effort that exceeds the maximum effort you can sustain evenly from start to finish, you burn a match. There are only so many matches you can burn, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

“Grin and bear it,” Brett told me. “Just grin and bear it.”

After more than eight hours of running, there was a fierce battle being waged in our minds. In one trench was the suffering, the pain; and in the other, an intense desire to resist the impulse to quit. With about 10 miles left to go, I started doing the math and realized that unless Brett and I picked up the pace, we weren’t going to finish in less than 11 hours—the official “cut-off” time. The race’s website said that after 11 hours, all finishers would still get a finisher’s medal, but that they would not get an “official time.” As far as the race director was concerned, if you couldn’t finish in 11 hours, you shouldn’t have been out there in the first place.

By mile 45, Brett and I were still hurting, trying desperately to put one foot in front of the other. “I gotta just go,” Brett said to me as we tried to chug a few cups of water at the last aid station. “I’ll be fine,” I told him. “You go…. I’ll be right behind you.”

It was a lie. I knew I couldn’t go any faster. I felt as though my legs had been drained of life. Each time I tried to pick up the pace, my hamstrings would put on the brakes. Before I knew it, Brett was gone. Somehow he had tapped into something I’m not convinced he even knew he had. He covered the last 4.7 miles of the race in less than 40 minutes, an amazing show of mental and physical toughness for someone who had already been running for over 10 hours.

Then there was me. As day gave way to dusk, my race also began to descend into darkness. Unable to eat or drink, and completely alone, I braced myself for that voice of doubt and negativity that has always seemed to show up in the past, telling me that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough.

I was looking at my feet, wondering which step would be my last when my wife, who I had met up with at the aid station came running up from behind me. “All we have left is 4.7. We can do it!” I felt suddenly lighter, as though I had thrown off a weighted vest. My wife, who was four months pregnant with our second child, wasn’t about to let me go it alone. Her confidence in me flipped a switch in my brain. My feet switched back and forth, almost effortlessly.

At six feet, four inches and 250 pounds, I’ve gotten incredulous looks at nearly every endurance race I’ve ever run. On October 26, 2014, in Door County, Wisconsin, however, Brett and I did something not many people can say they have done.

The experience taught me two things. The first is that suffering is humbling. The second is that to finish a race of this magnitude, you don’t have to be fast—all you have to be is fearless. You have to be fearless because you can’t know how hard it’s going to be. Running ultra-distances is a lot like coming home from war in that sense. As Brett explained to me a few days after the race, whether you’re coming home from war or endeavoring to run 50 miles in fewer than 11 hours, all you can do is show up, toe the start line, loosen your grip on your own desires, be patient and forgiving and undemanding, control what you can control, and not worry about the rest.

Here are 48 other things I learned about coming home from war–and life, really–by running 50 miles:

1. Both running ultra distances and coming home from war can be brutal and emotionally taxing.

2. Neither is fun, exactly–sometimes it hurts and takes great effort.

3. If we push on, we feel a vague, tingling sense of who–or what–we really are.

4. We have been running long distances and coming home from war since the dawn of time, and we are naturally equipped to do both.

5. In both, you’re tougher than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.

6. There is energy to be gained by establishing a goal, training to achieve that goal, and then finally reaching it.

7. Neither are about speed; time on your feet is key.

8. You have to be flexible, adapting to injury, illness, and life.

9. You can’t let small setbacks throw you off.

10. Relentless forward progress is the name of the game.

11. If you get your body comfortable with being uncomfortable, both can feel almost natural.

12. Both put you in a highly select group.

13. Pace is the outcome; effort is the focus.

14. Neither running nor the experience of coming home from war judge you–they only give you feedback.

15. You have to find your rhythm.

16. You must pay attention to your body.

17. Both are much harder than you can anticipate.

18. Having a partner can make all the difference.

19. Having your family there to support you helps a great deal.

20. Junk food won’t help you.

21. You can’t focus on the finish line. Instead, focus on the six inches in front of your face and all the beauty that surrounds you.

22. Inspiration is all around you. Look for it.

23. Pacers can pull you from the darkest depths.

24. Don’t be fooled by how good you feel at the start.

25. It’s tempting to give in to your urges to quit.

26. You can’t resist the pain. You must embrace it.

27. Never hurry; never worry.

28. You might feel hopeless and desperate and unprepared to the task, but trust me, you are strong enough to keep going.

29. It’s funny what you find inside yourself when you think you’re empty.

30. You might not know what you need to prepare; show up anyway.

31. Eat before you get hungry and walk before you get tired.

32. You have to be patient.

33. Don’t ever think you can’t make it.

34. Consistency is key and much more important than intensity.

35. The secret is to try to be better than you were the day before.

36. Greatness is not a gift, reserved for the chosen few; it’s for you, too.

37. You’ll make it farther if you’re not in such a hurry.

38. Asking for advice from those who have been through it before does not make you weak.

39. Running ultra distances and coming home from war will leave you with two great qualities: absolute confidence and intense humility.

40. For those who put in the work, salvation awaits.

41. There will be times that simply taking a step will feel like the most difficult task in the world. In such times, you have to find a new source of energy and will.

42. Sometimes progress is effortless, and the ease seems like it will last forever. Cherish those moments. But don’t be crushed when their over. Another effortless moment is sure to come around again.

43. Don’t take the path of least resistance.

44. Don’t be afraid or unwilling to demand the best from yourself.

45. Embrace fatigue; get to know it so you won’t be scared of it.

46. You’ll be more successful at both if you learn to build your soul as much as your strength.

47. Even seemingly impossible tasks become less intimidating if you break them down and take things one step at a time.

48. Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living.

Have you run 50 miles or more? Have you come home from war? What lessons have you learned?

Comments on 50(ish) Things I Learned about Coming Home from War by Running 50 Miles

  • Dan Brostek

    Great post.