Running ugly

It was an ugly run. The ugliest run in the history of long runs. The ugliest run in the history of history.

Well, that’s what it felt like. In reality it wasn’t. Because I know that I’ve had runs that were just as ugly if not uglier. I know that in the future I will have more ugly runs. Which actually is a good thing. If all my runs went perfectly according to plan, then I’m never outside my comfort zone. Ugly runs mean I’m challenging myself and if I’m paying attention, teach me something. It may be physical gains but usually it’s mental gains. And over the course of an endurance event (whether that be marathon or, you know, just plain life) mentality and attitude are usually more valuable than genetics and skill.

I thought about a conversation I had with Rebecca Rusch, the queen of mountain biking. I was asking her questions about athletic identity, about what it means to be an athlete. Rusch, for those who don’t know, has a fascinating story about leading adventure racing teams then stumbling into mountain biking at the age of 38. She’s been a world champion and dominated the epic Leadville 100.

But when she started mountain biking, she had little technical skill. She competed and won some early races on her endurance and attitude. She would carry or walk her bike up and around obstacles if need be. The idea was to keep moving forward, play to her strengths and get past the difficulties as quickly as possible in any way possible.

This lead to several articles describing her as “winning ugly.”

And that phrase “winning ugly” stung.

“There was an article written about me called ‘Winning Ugly’ and it basically was about how is this person who winning races? It really hurt men when I read that at the time. I started cycling late. Technically I wasn’t very good. I’d jump off and run over hard spots and jump back on my bike but I kept going.

“It hurt my feelings at the time. ‘Look how crappy of a bike rider she is.’ It hurt because my ego was embarrassed. I’m a pro rider and a shitty bike rider. But I still won races. I may have been jumping off my bike, but I was good enough to win races and launch a whole other career of riding bikes. If I had listened to that article that said, ‘She sucks. She’s a terrible bike rider.’ I don’t know what job I’d have now and it would be sad that I would have missed out on this opportunity.”

I’m not winning races. Hell, I’m not even placing in my age group. My competition is with myself — to go a bit faster, to run a bit longer, to be stronger, to try something new. Yet I’ve had plenty of people, some under the guise of “friends” tell me I should just give up racing and find something completely non-competitive. Enter the little voice in my head that likes to tell me I suck. The voice that asks, “Who do you think you are?”

I finished my ugly long run with a smile on my face. I learned some valuable lessons and gained some mental toughness. It was with sincere gratitude that I said “thank you” to my body. The run may have been slow and ugly, but by whose standards? My body carried me over 13 miles on that run. It was healthy and strong. Not everyone can say that. What a blessing it is to be able to run, no matter how ugly. What a blessing to take a rest day and come back at it again. And again. With a bit more wisdom and a whole lot of humor.

As I recovered from my long run I finished Rebecca’s book “Rusch to Glory” which chronicles her athletic career, which includes ups, downs, confidence and doubt. Through the telling of her own story, she shares some hard-won wisdom.

“Sometimes all you need is permission to fail in order to succeed,” Rusch wrote.

Sometimes, you need permission to win ugly.

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