Bandit Coach, Emily Fowler, heading out for her final 6 miles of the 2016 Badlands 50, at the DeSoto National Forest Bethel Trails. She raced in the 50K distance this year. See the Badlands web page for updates on next year’s race dates: Badlands 50.
by Janice Marie Ferguson
“Have you figured out why you’re doing this yet?” I asked my friend, Emily, around mile 30 as I trailed behind her.
In case you’re wondering, 50K is equivalent to 31 miles.
I always like to know someone’s “why.” There should be a reason why for everything. When you know why you’re doing something, you have purpose. It makes sense. Your reason and your why doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else, though. Your why is yours, and yours alone. There is no wrong or right why. You just have to have one. For what, you ask? Because you’re going to need it to help you hold on for when the going gets tough. Without a why, you stand a greater chance of failing at something; or even worse, quitting.
Emily finished today’s race in about 7 hours. She forgot how many minutes. Exactness doesn’t really matter, anyway. Our society typically places a disproportionately high value on the relative concept of time. But, Emily’s official finish time was just a footnote of today’s adventure–a blip on the continuum of her life journey. Today’s blip graced her with seven hours and a forgotten amount of minutes to think about the reason why she was doing this to herself.
While you’re out there, you get to think. I believe that’s the draw for many ultra runners. You don’t have the pesky life distractions of research papers, reports to create, customers to call, books to read, emails to check, and social media to keep up with. You just are. It’s you, the landscape, and the trail out there–and maybe a few quirky friends, who like you, paid to do something that convinces most of the population of regular folks that:
1) you’re a crazy superhuman for doing something like this, or
2) you’re just plain crazy.
If they only knew!!! It’s so peaceful–even despite all the discomfort. It’s a very spiritual experience. You get to spend some quality “me” time. That’s not something we get to do so often. I know this certainly applies to Emily as she has been very overloaded with a lot on her plate: school, joining the Air Force Reserves, and the new gym transition. So, I bet today (even though she’s likely paying for it now) was a treasured gift of time for her to have some clear headspace and very few interruptions.
You also get to see what you’re made of. While we were out there, we talked about how some think that she’s really tough and unbreakable because she does things like this. And I would certainly agree with that.
She is unbreakable.
But, I don’t think a lot of people understand that her unbreakable spirit isn’t just about today’s seven-hours-and-forgotten-amount-of-minutes blip on the continuum of her life journey. She’s not unbreakable simply because she overcame many mental and physical discomforts and succeeded at completing a 50K race today. She was unbreakable long before she got here. In fact, her unbreakable-ness is what got her here today.
Emily didn’t start out running 30-mile races. She started out small—with a measly little ole 5k. She actually started running because of her dad. Her dad battled alcoholism for many years. When he lost his driver’s license because of a DUI, he immediately sobered up. With no license, he still had to get to work, so he had to start running and biking to his job. This was a catalyst for him to start training for races, and even a marathon. He ran despite the weather–even in the brutal Massachusetts snow and rain. His determination and change became an eventual catalyst for change in Emily’s own life journey in 2006, while she was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, as a Navy Seabee. Now, every year, Emily has a tradition on her dad’s sobriety date, January 23, where she runs a mile for each year, or does a workout with a significance of the time and date that her dad has been sober. That first running experience, 10 years ago, was her first time to ever approach her breaking point. I like to think she was a lot like the average or normal person back in those days. The thought of running 3.1 miles without stopping was a monumental physical and mental challenge, especially for someone who was overweight, like Emily was. I bet the first time she ever ran a mile, it was a complete gut-check for her, and she probably wondered how she could ever go further. But, she didn’t stop trying.
Check out Coach Emily (far right) back before she was doing 50K races!
Now, let’s get back to today. And let’s pretend for just a second that Emily did not finish her attempt at the Badlands 50 today. Because that outcome certainly was a possibility. She took a risk today. And if she had failed, does that make her breakable? Does that make her weak? Does that make her a failure?
Why? Because failing at something is not final—unless you allow it to be. Failure is a great opportunity for us to make progress in our life journeys. Daring to try, and risking and accepting failure is what brought Emily to where she is today. She started out testing her breaking point in a one-mile run, then a 5k run, and then a half marathon run, and all they way to today in a 50K. In fact, Emily has completed both a 50K and the Badlands 50 fifty-mile race before today, and has done many other very tough challenges over the years.
The reason Emily succeeded today is because for a very long time, she has tested her mental and physical fortitude again-and-again. She started small, and when she achieved a small victory, she moved on to bigger challenges and tests. I have witnessed many of these tests over the past few years since she has been part of our community, and it has been a privilege to watch her get tougher and tougher each and every time.
Emily in the early part of todays’ Badlands 50.
–Photo by Charles McKenzie
What Emily has inside her soul is a very special quality. I am very lucky to have such a strong friend to look up to and draw inspiration from. To all our Bandits: let Emily be that same inspiration for you—and realize that you, too, have the same qualities inside you that you can cultivate to reach new heights in your emotional, spiritual, and physical journeys. Nothing is out of reach for you. Look at what 10 years has done for Emily. Imagine what you will be after many failures, trials, and successes.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes: “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” –Lao Tzu
Some of you are on step one. Some of you have thousands of steps behind you. Keep moving, and keep stepping forward—just like Emily did to achieve success today. And just like she did yesterday, the day before that, and as she will continue to do each and every day as she finds her next personal challenge to test her “why.”
Somewhere as we neared the finish line, she told me, “Because I need to know that I’m still capable of doing something like this.”
I know exactly what she meant when she said that. Emily has given up some of her own fitness pursuits over the last two years. First she became a public servant as a police officer, and now she is a servant within our gym to all of you. Today, she kept true to her “why,” and she even found out just how capable she still is as she hobbled across the finish line to a group of people who love and admire her more than she will ever know.