Thursday, October 23, 2014

10,000 Hours and the Agony of Untold Stories

I quit my job last Friday.

It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, because I have the kind of job that I’ve spent my entire young life working to get. The kind of job that’s taken me to heart-pounding waterfalls in Iceland, to the tops of volcanoes in the Canary Islands, to the beaches of Oahu, to the finish line of Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100, to the San Juan mountains to camp out and hike with one of the coolest families I’ve ever met. The kind of job that has let me meet, connect with, work with, run with, learn from, write about and write for thousands of amazing people all over the world. The kind of job that has people routinely commenting on my Facebook page with comments like, “Holy best job in the world!”

How does one decide to quit a job like that?

When I was in Hawaii last year to run and write about the XTERRA World Trail-Running Championships, I crossed paths with a wonderful woman named Kim Rogers—whose full-time job was as a travel writer for Outrigger Hawaii. This essentially meant a salary and expense account to traipse around the Hawaiian islands, hiking and surfing and kayaking and meeting wonderful humans, photographing her journeys and writing about them all in meaningful ways.

And, several months ago, after six years at that job, she quit, too.

I doubt if I can articulate my own reasons as well as she did in this blog post entitled "Why I Quit the Best Job in the World," but in it, she shared a wonderful quote attributed to Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

When I was in elementary school, I understood this. In fact, it’s probably what got me through elementary school. I was young for my class, shy and socially awkward, an easy target for the innocent but nevertheless piercing sort of cruelty that children are capable of. In other words, I often felt grateful to escape school and go home. Though I loved learning, my favorite part of the day was composing stories in my head on my walk home each afternoon, then dashing up to my bedroom to start writing. I was brimming with novels and short stories, and they came rushing out of me with a ferocity I dream of someday recapturing in my adult life.

In his oft-quoted book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that mastery in any field requires approximately 10,000 hours of practice. I have no idea how many hours I’ve racked up putting pen to paper, or clacking away at a computer keyboard under the yawning emptiness of a blank Word document, but I can say this—despite majoring in creative writing in college and building a career thus far around writing-related jobs, the majority of those hours were between the ages of 7 and 17.

And I was confident back then, too. At age 10, I told my parents I wanted to publish my first book—a 50,000-word novel I’d written called Mrs. Graud. It was about a young girl befriending a hermitic, unpopular woman in the neighborhood who turns out to be quite kind, then reveals she has cancer, so the protagonist begins a fundraising campaign for the woman’s treatment. (On a sidenote, I recall drawing inspiration for this story from the Berenstain Bears Trick or Treat, in which Brother and Sister Bear bravely trick-or-treat at the house of an old woman rumored to be a witch, but who actually turns out to be very nice, as well as flush with caramel apples—which are better than Dum-Dums or Jolly Ranchers any day.)

Anyway, rather than resorting to stock responses like, “OK sure sweetie, you can do anything!” or “Haha, publish a novel at age 10? Hilarious!”, my parents told me if I was serious about getting published, I should do some research on what’s really involved.

So, I put together a 10-page (single-spaced, even) research report on how to publish a novel—preparing a manuscript, submitting a query, landing an agent, securing a contract, working with a publisher. I could learn a lot from my 10-year-old self. The report is filled with useful advice like, “An agent learns how to get the most from the publicity department, examines an author’s royalty statements, makes sure the author gets paid properly, sells subrights and licenses for a book, and is basically an author’s book’s greatest advocate. Agents are also helpful in the way that they can complain and yell at the editor about the things the author wants changed, so that the author himself won’t jeopardize his relationship with the editor.”

Outside magazine recently published a thought-provoking article by Ben Hewitt on the case for “unschooling”—a radical approach to childhood education that involves taking kids out of the classroom completely and letting them learn everything organically, “out in the real world.” It’s not in elementary school curriculum, for example, to have fifth-graders do research reports on book publishing. Not that I was ever “unschooled,” but how cool is it that I was encouraged to do something like that when I was young?

Every summer, though my parents always asked whether I wanted to attend camps or summer programs, like other kids did—and I did some (thank you YMCA in Estes Park for instilling in me a love for the mountains!)—above all, I just begged for free, unstructured time with which to write. And, I do wonder: Would I be the writer I am today without the thousands of hours I spent holed up with my imagination, exploring the characters I’d created, honing my understanding of language?

I still feel nostalgic for the reckless abandon with which I wrote when I was younger—not worrying about profitability, not worrying about how many clicks or shares something gets on the Internet, not ever doubting for a moment that my name would be on the bookshelf at Borders (RIP) by the time I hit middle school. Or high school. Or college.

Someone texted me earlier this week to say she’d heard that I’d quit my job. “Was this a long time coming?” she asked.

On one hand, no; when I took the job with Trail Runner, I certainly thought I’d stay longer than two years. I wouldn’t take back a moment of it, for I’ve grown immensely in these years—as a writer, as an editor, as a human being. And, I still plan to write plenty for Trail Runner—hopefully even more than I have the time for now.

On the other hand, yes, it was a long time coming in that I’ve spent the last two decades of my life talking about wanting to publish a book. Though I’ve been fortunate enough to tell many meaningful stories in my time at the magazine, I still have dozens more inside of me—ones longer than magazine format, ones not necessarily about trail running, ones waiting, if not demanding, to be explored.

Last week, I’d already made up my mind to give notice at my job when this happened: Midway through my 18-mile commute to work on a two-lane road, I came around a corner and had just barely enough time to swerve out of the way of a car that had crossed almost entirely over into my lane. We missed hitting one another head-on at 50mph by a matter of inches. It was just a few miles north of the spot where a young woman was killed in a head-on collision less than two months earlier. As I felt the adrenaline course through my body, my first thought was one of outrage—not at the careless driver who’d drifted across the highway, but at myself. I thought, “Damn it, if that car had hit and killed me today, I’d be so pissed that I never got to tell the world all my stories.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Dark Places We Visit in Pursuit of the "Perfect" Race

Last year, at Trail Runner's first annual Photo Camp, I had a terrific conversation with Jason Schlarb and Jen Benna, two elite ultrarunners who'd come to run and "model" for the camp. Over beers and a post-run hot-tub soak, we all chatted about the dreamy pursuit of "the perfect race," that magical experience in which the stars align and everything unfolds like a dream.

Jen had experienced just that earlier that year at the Zion 100, which she ran many hours faster than any previous hundo she'd done, handily won by over an hour, and smashed the previous women's course record by nearly four hours. A month after our Photo Camp, Schlarb also set his own 100-mile personal record and bagged a dominating win at the hyper-competitive Run Rabbit Run 100. He also not only won, but broke the course record, by well over an hour.

Well, I'm no elite athlete, but that doesn't mean I'm not competitive with myself and my own goals. Granted, I tend to favor realistic expectations over ambitious ones, and until the Bear 100 last weekend, I'd never approached a race of that magnitude with a true time goal, other than just to not quit and make it to the finish line.

But, I trained hard this year. For my third 100-miler, I felt ready to graduate from the "just finish" mindset to the "race a wee bit" mindset. So I set a goal of finishing in under 28 hours, which felt ambitious for me on the Bear course (22,000 feet of elevation gain), yes, but also plausible. Nevertheless, it's scary to admit goals like this aloud, because if things don't go as planned, it's nice to be able to cop out and say, "Oh, I didn't really care about my time anyway."

But, here's the problem: I did.

Or, perhaps more accurately, I cared about my goal of wanting to nail "the perfect race." Or even, less ambitiously, to just not fall apart. I wanted to run hard and feel (mostly) good the whole time, or as (mostly) good as it's possible to feel during a 100-mile race.

And I felt pretty darn good for most of the race! Photo by Annie Murphy.
I wanted to be able to look back on the 2014 Bear 100 and say something other than "Everything was great until the sh*t hit the fan between the miles of 70 and 75," which has been the story of the other two 100s I've run.

In hundo #1 (2012 IMTUF), around mile 70ish, massive blisters bloomed on every available surface area of each of my toes. I went from being briefly in the women's lead to spending 25 miles wincing in pain with each step and missing the race's already-generous cutoff of 36 hours by three minutes.

In hundo #2 (2013 Leadville), I got exactly 1.5 hours of sleep the night before the race and thus, by mile 70ish, was literally falling asleep while running/hiking. I stopped to nap on the ground or on aid-station cots many times over the last 25 miles and, like a zombie, crawled over the finish line in 29.5 hours.

Last weekend, I was careful to sidestep the issues of #1 and #2wearing toe socks (no blisters the whole race!) and getting plenty of sleep (didn't even need caffeine to get me through the night this time!). I felt great.

Feeling psyched around mile 20. Photo by Annie Murphy.
Nonetheless, come mile 70ish, something vicious found a way to rear its head. In this case, around 5 a.m., the skies unleashed a holy terror of freezing rain. The final quarter of the course turned into a muddy slip-and-slide, an outright waterfall in places, that slowed me to a necessary walkwhich, in turn, chilled me to the bone.

Stubbornly, I'd wanted to run the Bear without a pacer. And I did just that, which, for the most part, I enjoyed. I can't tell you what exactly I thought about during my long, lonesome hours through the night, but I can tell you that I felt calm and joyful. There's magic to be found in solitude in the mountains. Furthermore, people are far more likely to approach and start a conversation with you when you're aloneso, all day and all night, I enjoyed sharing a few miles at a time and great conversations with strangers.

I crossed the state line around 4:30 a.m.

... and utterly failed to take a selfie with the sign. But posting this blurry photo to show how happy I clearly still was at that point in the race!
But, come the apocalyptic rains, my solitude took me to an especially dark place. I grew cold. I slipped several times, falling and hitting my head against the ground. All the moisture from the rain caused significant chafing on my back and thighs, rubbing my skin raw and bleeding in places. I cried some. I distinctly remember repeating the words, "I've never been this miserable in my life" inside my mind like the refrain to some terrible song. By the time I stumbled into the aid station at mile 85, every one of my layers of clothing and gloves and cap soaked through, I'd convinced myself I had hypothermia, so was fully prepared to quit and go home.

I wept there, too, disappointed in myself for giving upbut equally certain that I was, in fact, experiencing a medical emergency that warranted quitting. And yet, when I got there, my crewmy boyfriend and my dad, who also helped see me through Leadville last yearwas nowhere to be found.

I couldn't imagine doing anything but sitting, swaddled in blankets next to a campfire, so that's what I did. Nearly an hour passed as I sat, shivering and semi-conscious, before I overheard one of the volunteers mention that the road to the aid station was impassable for two-wheel-drive cars.

And so it dawned on me that my crew wasn't coming. There would be no piling into a dry, heated car and being gently lulled to sleep on the drive back to a warm hotel room. There was nothing but a 15-mile expanse of mud, rain and cold fog awaiting me. Impressionable as I was by then, thanks to the gentle but firm encouragement of a fellow runner and his pacer—thank you, Nate and Ben!back out I went.

Other than the mud on the trails, which only grew worse, everything improved from there on. The rains calmed. My body regained warmth as the coldness of night fell away and I was able to keep up a steadier pace. At the next aid station at mile 92, I happily fell into the arms of my crew, changed into dry clothes and took off for the finish line, thrilled to be "gettin' 'er done."

Cruising down the finishing chute, happily outfitted in dry clothes, shoes no longer identifiable under cloaks of mud.

Finisher swag.
Post-race portrait. Thanks for the snap, Jeason.
Am I satisfied with my race at the Bear this year? Of course I am. There's no being disappointed when you finish a 100-mile race! But that "perfect race," at least for me at the 100-mile distance, remains elusive. I've experienced it in a 50K; I've experienced it in a 50-miler. I'm just still hungry for it in a 100-miler. (It typically takes me only a few hours to go from "What the hell was I thinking, running 100 miles is the worst idea ever" to "When can I sign up for another one?")

Once again, this sport has thoroughly humbled me. Every time I get the teensiest bit of an ego about my running, something comes along to tear it down. And, for that, I have nothing but gratitude. Ego doesn't belong in the mountains.

Thanks for reminding me of that, Bear! Other than my own rambling, self-indulgent reflections here, I have nothing but good things to say about the race organization, beauty of the course, volunteers, aid stations, fellow runners ... truly a top-notch event I'd heartily recommend to anyone. Thank you to everyone who was a part of the 2014 Bear for making this an unbelievable experience! (And, for a far better photographic and video representation of the race's beauty and mudfest alike, check this out.)