I often get asked why I run ultramarathons, and the best reply I have ever come up with is that it’s not because of the race; it’s because of the discipline it takes to get to the race. I’m not a natural born runner. I don’t roll out of bed and look in the mirror and see a runner’s body, and truth be told I’m really not that great of an athlete. But there is one thing that I have learned, and it is the secret behind why I run ultra marathons — simply put, I can discipline my body to do any challenge I throw at it, and I can overcome adversities like twisted ankles, sore knees, and gastrointestinal challenges to get through to the other side, that other side being the side that looks back and can confidently say that I have done something special.
One of my first jobs, when I got out of the military, was selling advertisements on a daily paper that was faxed into offices all across Hampton Roads. It was a new and pretty interesting one-page piece that always had a section for what was happening, a section with office tips, and another section with some good clean humor. Underneath those sections were various size ads that would go to thousands of offices every single morning. I have no idea how many of these faxes were read or even how the media company went about building their fax list. All I knew was that I would get a paycheck at the end of the week if I successfully sold companies on advertising with our medium. I also found out, the hard way of course, that this type of advertising was a very, very narrow niche type of advertising, and it turned out that to get to “yes” took about 15–20 businesses telling you “NO”.
Not knowing the owners of these businesses, my strategy was to drive to a different section of town each day and then to go one by one by one through the different businesses in the area introducing myself and getting the name of the owner or the person in charge of making advertising decisions. I didn’t try to sell them right then unless they were in a really good mood and asked me to stay, but I would get their name and number and promise to call in a couple of days. My routine was to try and stop into at least 20 businesses before 9:30 AM every morning. Those 20 stop offs, or cold calls as people called them, usually netted me between 7–10 names and numbers that I could call. Then I would go into my office and from 10–11 I would make as many phone calls as I could. Sometimes I could engage in sales over the phone, and sometimes I would set appointments to go see the person. The goal was to make a minimum of 30 phone calls during this hour. On a really good day, I could get a commitment to at least run one or two experimental ads (small ads that only cost them $25–35 per time), and I could set anywhere from 3–5 meetings for a future day from these phone calls. Then I would eat a quick lunch (fast food — that’s why I was fat) and head off for my in-person meetings, which I tried to do at least 3–5 in the afternoon. For these meetings, I was either meeting to go over ad copy or to sell the actual ad, but at least half of my in-person meetings ended up being revenue generating meetings.
By being disciplined about working the numbers and knowing that for every “yes” that I received there were a whole lot of people telling me “no” I found that the discipline was paying off, resulting in me making a fairly decent living. It was hard work with a great payoff: I learned not to be afraid of hard work and I’m certainly not afraid of somebody telling me that they don’t want to do business with me. The other thing this work taught me is that if I want to live an ultra life, that full life that is truly worth living, then I’m going to have to get off the couch a lot, get out of my comfort zone, and stretch myself. For me, I have labeled this my “live with no regrets” type of living, and the trail markers to get to a life of discipline are fairly obvious. I really believe that discipline was designed this way for a reason.
Discipline has gotten a really bad knock …. You mention the word discipline, and sometimes my mind swings back to parochial school and whichever nun I managed to frustrate with my exuberance and energy (some might read that my hyperactivity and sarcasm) disciplining me with a hard smack of a ruler to whatever body part or a particular nun my brother used to tell me about who walked with her keys in her hands and would slip the key through a knuckle and screw it into the top of that kid’s head when she wanted to get the kid’s attention. Yeah, discipline didn’t use to paint a rosy picture for me, but I overcame that with these steps that got me on the trail run of a lifetime (and it’s not over yet).
Live a Life of No Regrets
Regret is a very poor partner in life; it is much like wrapping a boa constrictor around your neck and expecting that you will continue to keep breathing. Regret keeps us from truly living because it is constantly trying to pull us back down into the pit of “what if” and “if I only”, which is worse than the Pit of Despair and can leave us feeling much less than Wesley who was only “mostly dead”. Regret, in its finest hour, leaves us feeling like we’re at Mile 22 of a 26.2-mile marathon, knowing we have at least one more hill to climb before mercifully the race ends. Regret can only leave us feeling down and out and like we’re never going to live again. It’s a most miserable place to be, and I would say most of us pretty well know it. But if we know it, why do we allow ourselves to live with regret, to allow ourselves to be pulled down into this pit that we seemingly can’t climb out of?
There’s No Such Thing as a Straight Road
When I was road running I never encountered one of these strange phenomena. Just as you’re kicking it down a trail, really making fantastic time, some crazy person put a switchback, a 90-degree turn in the middle of the trail, and then to make it even more fun, they put a whole series of these crazy turns into the trail.
Life has switchbacks also, these crazy 90 degree turns intended to slow you down as you plummet down the trails of life. As humans, we tend to view these switchbacks as a deterrent to us getting what we want, and we curse the people that put these into our life
Living a disciplined life means that you enjoy the switchbacks and embrace them for the help they are instead of a deterrent to you getting what you want all the time.
The Blessing of a Disciplined Life
One of the many things I have learned through my short running career is that I am best if I have a schedule for what distance I am running on what day. For me it is an accountability tool; for others, like my sweet forever girlfriend, also known lovingly as my wife, it many times is an utter frustration.
I was in training for my first marathon and had hit pretty much every day in my schedule with the exception of a couple days where I had taken a great fall and was so bruised I couldn’t run, but I will never forget this particular day. It was toward the end of September in Virginia, and the weather report for the next day was that the hurricane that was offshore was going to stay spinning just offshore creating a wonderful day of pouring down rain and wind. My schedule said I needed to do 23 miles. My wife said to do it the next weekend, but I couldn’t do it the next weekend because it was four weeks out from the marathon and my training schedule said I was going to start tapering down. So I won the argument, and she agreed to make sure I didn’t drown or have a tree fall on me as we headed off to the Dismal Swamp Trail (an old highway that had been blocked off and was exactly 10.5 miles from one end to the other). I knew that all I had to do was run to the end of the trail and back and then go out 1 mile and back again. Easy peasy pudding pie … or not.
The rain wasn’t falling down; it was coming in sideways. The wind wasn’t calming and gentle; it was strong enough to blow you off your feet at times. I made it all the way out to the end of the trail, not at any kind of speed, but I made it, and then my wife met me at a through street with dry shorts and shirt. (Yes, I did strip down in the middle of the trail; it’s not like there was anybody else out there.) And with dry clothes, I set off back the way we came. Along the journey I spotted a bear lying in wait up ahead in the grass; it was actually a fallen tree branch as it turns out. My wonderful wife met me again at the start and tried convincing me that 21 miles was really close to 23. I turned her down, instead accepting another dry shirt, no change of dry shorts this time, and set off back to the mile marker so I could turn around and come back one last time. Dripping wet and fully soaked all the way through, I crossed the line and got back in the car, and as I tried warming up with the heater in our car going full blast that was the moment that I knew that no matter what I was going to be able to complete my first ever marathon. I had handled my nutrition well, I had plenty to drink (just had to tip my head to the side the wind was blowing from and open my mouth), and I was not physically tanked, there was still more left in me; I knew I had it. All the discipline of getting up early in the morning, all the discipline of running in heat and humidity, rain, and even icy days had prepared me to run the marathon, cross the finish line, and get the finisher’s medal.
On October 30, 2011 I did just that — as a 225-pound guy who had slimmed down only a year before from 245, I bounced across the Marine Corps Marathon finish line in a tad over five hours, and that included a couple of extra of miles since I went back around mile 20 to search for the friends I had started the race with to make sure they were going to finish also. Discipline paid off then, and it has paid off in every race after.
Discipline has paid off in a lot of other ways that I never really considered also. I have a much more positive outlook on life when I allow myself to live a disciplined life.