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It’s Not About the Finish Line
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Friday, November 17, 2023
 

By KEITH WILSON

I coach cross-country for Wood River High School, and I have a different kind of philosophy than other coaches may have. When a runner wins or sets a personal best at the finish line, I’m grinning ear-to-ear, but it’s not what I value most.

We hear old mantras like eyes on the prize or focus on the goal all the time. It’s because striving toward an achievable outcome is a tried-and-true method of attaining satisfaction in physical prowess and any other endeavor. Get after it. Just do it. Chase the dream.

These kids are all at different levels, and they are here for all different reasons. Especially at their age, they are putting together their identities, their interests, and their passions. One of them, in some capacity, is running.

A major part of my own training regimen, as well as for the runners I coach, is strength-training. For me, it happens in my garage where I used to prominently display my plaques, trophies, and medals from running, including the participation ones.

I used to.

I’ve now considered myself a runner for more than 20 years. In that time, I’ve run 25 marathons and 40-some ultramarathons, and I’ve lost count of any other distance I’ve raced. Many of those races tell a story of focusing on a goal, achieving it and feeling elated.

Then there are the races that tell a story of disappointment and heartbreak. Those ones are more vivid.

In 2012, I took a wrong turn at the Seattle Marathon, and my potential time of a 2:39 turned into a time over three hours. In 2016, I ran my second Boston Marathon, experienced an intense pain in my foot, and clocked the slowest time I’ve ever run that distance.

In 2021, I was 54 miles into the Salt Flats 100-Mile Endurance Run near West Wendover, Utah, and I quit. I’d been training here in the Wood River Valley through the winter and spring, logging weekly mileage with triple digits, running hills, running intervals, running long, and strength-training among those plaques, trophies, and medals. I had won the 50-mile version of the race, and I was prepared to win the 100.

Something I love about this valley is the cool temperatures, but those temperatures didn’t bode well for the heat of race day. I knew I was dehydrated when I started cramping near mile 50. By mile 52, I was puking everything I swallowed.

At mile 54, I was sitting in a folding chair my wife brought out from my car, unable to eat, unable to drink, unable to slow my breathing, and unable to move without cramping. My hands felt like they were vibrating.

I ended my night in the ER in Tooele after my wife drove me almost two hours there, me still breathing as if I were running. Several IV bags later, I was released, and the next day, my body wasn’t even sore.

It was my pride and my ego that hurt. I’d never had to quit a race before. I also knew that if I kept my eyes on the prize, stayed focused on the goal, I might have lost a kidney or at least full function of it.

That next day I kept thinking about one of the doctors who was also an ultra-runner and how he touted the benefits of sauna use to prepare for the heat. Later in the spring I put one in my garage among my weights and other equipment, but I had to move those plaques, medals, and trophies. Now they are stuffed into totes that are shoved in a shed behind my house. Regular sauna use is now part of my regimen. It’s part of my process.

Striving toward an achievable outcome is effective, but as runners and as anyone with a passion, we don’t value the process nearly enough. Keeping your eyes on the prize is a great way to stay motivated, but focusing on a goal too hard can also be a setup for discouragement.

We fall into this trap in our careers. I know I did. When we read a great book, when we watch a great movie, when we take a vacation, we enjoy the ride. Our endeavors for which we have passion should be the same way.

As the cross-country kids finish high school, move into higher education, careers, marriages, and maybe even some more running, I hope that their brief time on the team demonstrates the value of process over end result.


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