The Merits of Obsession

Our friend, Glenn Tachiyama, took this at the finish line after George paced me for 60 miles. The two of them crewed me from start to finish.

After Fat Dog, I enjoyed getting interviewed by Eric Schranz on Ultrarunnerpodcast. It was fun to be on the other side of interview questions for a change. But, as is the case anytime I’ve shared something personal in a non-written, non-editable medium, of course later I wanted to be able to say it all differently. To retroactively slow my words down, to cut out the superfluous, to spend that precious time more wisely, talking about the aspects that matter most.

Mostly, in this case, I wish I’d said more about how training with George has transformed me—George, whom I met in 2011 and was first a trail-running buddy to me, then a friend, then the subject of an article I wrote last year, then my coach, and finally, now also my sweetheart. When Eric asked me what changed for Fat Dog, my answer shouldn’t just have been about getting more experienced at the 100+ mile distance; it should have also been about the way George has inspired a radical shift in my approach to training this past year.

My life now could scarcely look more different from how it did a year ago. I moved halfway across the country, trading in small-town mountain living to become a city mouse again. After two and a half years of being my own boss, I signed up for 9-5 life again.

At this time last year, I was still seeing a therapist in Colorado for generalized anxiety that had come to feel unbearable. I’ll never be free entirely of anxious thoughts, but the move back to Seattle quelled a lot of them. (Bless my therapist for giving me unsolicited permission to “come home,” despite my stubborn insistence at the time that that wouldn’t solve any of my problems.)

I honestly believe one of the biggest saving graces for me was this: going from an amorphous, free-spirited lifestyle to a structured (albeit manageable) one that requires me to approach most hours of most days with what I’ve taken to calling “extreme intentionality.” To my own surprise, the former lifestyle encouraged a kind of lethargy within me that translated into anxiety, while the latter fills me with joyous exhilaration much of the time—ala Hunter S. Thompson, who once famously proclaimed, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!’”

Last week, the New York Times published a thought-provoking piece entitled, “Maybe We All Need a Little Less Balance.” (Tip o’ the hat to Eric, too, for sharing this in his Daily News.) The first person I sent the article to was Lauren Wilson. My best friend in this big, beautiful city, Lauren started her own ice cream business four years ago, Sweet Lo’s Homemade Ice Cream. She and her partner, Cassidy, have poured so much of themselves into the business. When I am really pushing myself and hurting during a race, I often draw inspiration from them.

Dessert queens.

I think of the confidence Lauren had in her business from day one—when she was still living in Vermont and tasted homemade ice cream for the first time, and knew then she was going to devote herself to giving people that experience. I think of how intensely she believed in her own vision, and how that confidence has propelled her to the level of success her business is at now, four years later.

She sometimes feels guilty for the time and energy she devotes to her business, even as it feeds her soul. I think of how much hard work goes on behind the scenes in the lives of entrepreneurs, or athletes, or anyone obsessively dedicated to something—how, on the outside, everything can look like enviable “dream job” passion, and so much of it is, but also how, on the inside, there is a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears. There is so much unseen sacrifice, and rarely any semblance of “balance.”

(The same, of course, could be said of writing—which is probably why I had to step away from it a bit this past year. I threw myself into it hard after leaving my job at Trail Runner. It was blissful at times, those long days I spent so absorbed in crafting stories that I forgot to sleep or eat or go outside. It was also exhausting. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know my life will always be one sprinkled with stretches of going full throttle on writing projects—sometimes in increments of weeks or even months at a time; sometimes in days, like yesterday, which I began at 4 a.m., excitedly churning out the majority of this blog post before sidling up to my desk to start my day job at 9.)

Still, though, for many years prior to this one, I strove hard for balance in my life. This was especially the case when I was freelancing and with a different partner. The reality is that my two greatest passions in life—running and writing—tend to be solitary, time-consuming endeavors. In the context of a relationship with someone who didn’t share those passions with comparable intensity, it was difficult to think of them as anything but subtractive—burdens, if not addictions, to be tamed, rather than indulged.

Glorifying balance led me to believe that success in ultrarunning could be bought with passion and ambition alone—that I could achieve my goals without making sacrifices or doing the taxing, time-consuming training to get there.

Haha.

George had been nudging me to let him coach me for years. Early on in 2012, not long after we first met, he wrote this to me: “Yitka, I have run with a lot of people and once in a while I come across someone like you that has great potential in this awesome sport. Keep it up and good things will come to you. … How much time and effort you want to devote to this sport/lifestyle is up to you but you have natural talent.”

For five years, I told myself I wasn’t interested in truly exploring that potential. I didn’t want anyone to label what I did as obsessive or unhealthy or, perhaps the worst sin of all (especially for women), imbalanced. I saw ultrarunners, particularly competitive ones, burning out left and right, and I wanted none of that. I proclaimed that preserving my love for running in the mountains was far more important than exploring the terra incognita of my physical and mental potential.

What George has taught me this year is that (a) imbalance is OK, and (b) joy and training hard are not mutually exclusive. There is, at times, exquisite bliss to be found amidst the suffering of hard workouts, which now comprise the majority of my training. Most of that happens on weekdays, and almost always still alone. (Weekends tend to be more play/adventure-oriented.)

I have spent a lot of time visiting the “dark and stormy” places inside my head while training this year. Pushing my mind and my body to their perceived limits is hard. I’ve cried in the mountains. I’ve gotten grumpy at the gym. At times, with my legs and lungs screaming, and my ego beaten into pitiful submission, I’ve felt rage toward George for asking me to do what seems impossible.

But I’ve kept at it—drawing more and more joy from it as the year has progressed—in large part because George is not only a wonderful coach, but also someone with whom I now spend a lot of time. And he, much like Lauren, is someone who does the impossible. They inspire me because they wake up every day “mad to live” (as Jack Kerouac once put it), because they do what they do with complete humility. They put in the often unglamorous hours of demanding work without complaint or need for external validation.

When I interviewed Jess Mullen (a phenomenal athlete whom George also coaches) last year for this article, she had this to say: “George is one of most disciplined people I know. His life is insanely busy but he makes no excuses and gets shit done. I admire that and am inspired by it. I like to have friends who are making the most of their life, and like to live it versus watch it go by. He is definitely an example of that.”

I don’t have half the responsibilities that George does, which include: being a great dad to three amazing kids, working the high-stress graveyard shift at Seattle’s Level I trauma-center hospital, coaching his kids’ track team, coaching ultrarunners, taking care of a house, sleeping less than anyone I know, all the while still somehow finding time to both train his ass off and be a loving, present partner to me—but seeing the way he leans so hard into everything he does has shown me what’s possible in my own life. He inspires me to waste less energy complaining about feeling overwhelmed, and instead just do stuff.

Accordingly, my life has been anything but balanced this year. I have thrown myself into my training, my career, my relationship and rebuilding aspects of my mental health after a challenging few years in Colorado. Committing to those priorities has happened at the temporary expense of other things. I have sacrificed sleep. I feel like I haven’t cooked in months. Sometimes I get so fearful that I’m being a poor friend to those who matter most in my life that hideous self-doubt swallows me whole. I’ve read a scant few books this year, which has translated into low writing motivation, too; I haven’t written much lately, save a few magazine pieces here and there and some copious personal journaling at the beginning of the year. If it was possible for me to get any shittier at staying on top of the constant deluge of emails, texts and social-media messages, I think I’ve managed to achieve that this year, too.

And yet, and yet, and yet. I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made in 2017. It has all felt worth it, and someday I’ll finish writing the book manuscript that attempts to articulate why.

In the meantime: It’s true that giving your all to something is hard. The way I’ve trained this year probably isn’t sustainable. But that’s OK. I’m already looking forward to an off-season soon to refocus my energy for a while on other aspects of my life that I’ve temporarily neglected. (Long-term balance = good! Short-term balance = bummer.) In the future, other life priorities are apt to take precedence over running/training, at least at times. That, of course, is also OK.

As I’m sure most parents can vouch for, giving your all to something really is the most rewarding thing in the world. If you’ve never found that something that inspires you to temporarily abandon all attempts to maintain “balance” in your life—whether it’s writing stories or running ultras or making ice cream—I guess the moral of this blog post is to go discover what that something is and do it.

Even just for a while.

I don’t know what we were laughing about or saying here, but I sure hope it was along the lines of, “Wow! What a ride!”. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.