Have you seen Rocky Balboa? How about Facing the Giants?
If you know me, you know I’m a bit of a sucker for underdog sports movies. Rocky Balboa returns us to Rocky’s life when he’s in his sixties, his wife has passed on, his grown son has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and Rocky is basically living a life as a waning figure in the boxing world.
There’s this scene where Rocky is talking to Paulie about thinking he wants to get back into boxing. Paulie asks why. Here’s the scene:
“There’s still some stuff in the basement.”
“Tell me about the stuff.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to breathe. Like I’ve got this- beast inside me.”
Later, after the big fight, Rocky says, “The beast is gone.”
The context of this exchange aside, I’ve felt like I’ve never put myself in a position where I’ve cleaned out my basement. Where I’ve had to give absolutely everything I had to accomplish something.
Where I’ve needed to tame the beast in me that keeps asking, “Are you ever really going to give anything your all?” and asking, “Are you ever going to stop doubting yourself? Ever going to stop giving into weakness? Ever going to stop holding something back?”
Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s been good that I’ve held back so much during my life. Getting in the number of fights I did as a youth, it’s good I held back every time. I never threw the strongest punch I could, never did the things that came to mind that would immediately and very decisively end those fights.
But when I play sports, like basketball or football or whatever, I don’t give it my all. Part of that is because I know I suck at that kind of sport. I know that if I give it my all, I will fail in spectacular fashion, in front of other people who will witness that epic fail where I gave it my all and I came laughably short. I just never had the skills, nor the time or opportunity to develop the skills that would make my all, my absolute greatest effort, pay off.
And when I teach, I have never really given it my all. Why? Because I would get too emotional, too caught up, too fiery, too-
Too vulnerable. Too honest. Too hopeful. Too full of love and passion and idealism and blind faith in people and goodness.
That’s really what it comes down to. Giving my absolute best, to the point that I have nothing left, nothing in the basement, no doubting questions from some beast inside, would just make me so vulnerable.
Vulnerable to failure. To mockery. To embarrassment.
So I’ve held back.
And when Rocky says he’s got stuff in the basement, I know what he’s talking about. That’s why underdog stories- stories where someone has to dig deep, fight hard, then dig deeper and find something transcendentally powerful inside of themselves in order to win the prize- have always appealed to me.
I’ve often wondered just what I’m capable of.
What can I accomplish if I ever find a way to stop doubting, stop holding back, stop fearing failure and mockery and the vulnerability of pouring every bit of me into something?
This clip from Facing the Giants has often inspired that question in me, has stirred me to wonder whether I ought to find an opportunity to clean out my basement.
Of course, I’ve never had a coach, never had a person willing to push me, demand of me that I not give up, not hold anything back.
But I needed this.
I craved a moment like this. I’ve been craving something like this my whole life. I have longed to have an opportunity to break out of my fear, kick that stupid beast of questions and doubt in the teeth, and do the hardest thing I could possibly do.
So I made a bucket list. I recorded that bucket list on this blog, just over a year ago. Here it is: https://www.jaredgarrett.com/1676-do-you-have-a-bucket-list
As you know, writing has been that thing for the longest time. But writing has so much more to it than a contest between me and the other me: the one that doubts and holds back. The one that keeps that basement a little full, a little at least left in storage or held over for one reason or another.
I wanted a contest where it’s just me and my basement fighting it out.
Five months or so ago, my company, Career Step, started talking about putting together a team to run in the Las Vegas Ragnar. The Ragnar is a 200 or so mile relay. The Vegas one this year would be 187. Here’s their website: http://www.ragnarrelay.com/
The way it works is this: The Ragnar course is broken down into 36 legs of differing distances and difficulties. You form a team of 12 runners. Runner 1 leads off, running leg 1, leg 13, and leg 25. Runner 2 does leg 2, leg 14, and leg 26.
You get the pattern? The relay begins on a given day and each runner meets the runner of the following leg at an exchange, handing off a bracelet, whereupon the next runner on that team takes off and runs their leg.
This exchange being completed 35 more times, continuously, over about 36 hours. Breaks? They happen between each of your runs. So you might have about 5-7 hours between each run.
But you also have to support your team as they run, handing out water and cheering each runner along. That said, the teams are usually broken into two vans: each van has six runners. Van 1 would have runners 1 through 6 and van 2 would have runners 7 through 12.
The Ragnar is a grueling race. You get sleep where you can, eat strategically, use ice profusely, and pray for a shower somewhere in all of that. It’s a popular race here in the western states– heck, it originated here in Utah.
So now go back to my bucket list and scroll to number 28.
I decided a while back that I wanted to do a Ragnar. It seemed doable, since the running was broken into three seemingly manageable chunks. When my company got to talking about sending a team to do the Vegas Ragnar, I was one of the latecomers who convinced them to send a second team.
So I signed up. Now see how #28 is green on my bucket list? That means I did it. I did the Ragnar this last Friday through Saturday.
I trained hard for the first month after signing up to do this. I took a two month break, which was stupid and lazy, then trained hard for six more weeks. But I’ve never been an athlete, much less a serious runner. I’ve been an observer of the grit it takes to do this kind of thing; never a participant. I got strong, not fast. I increased my distance, but it hurt. My knees, my ankles, my calves. Oh it hurt. I took a class and learned to reduce the pain by running better.
But it still hurt. And I never got anywhere near fast. And I’m still far too jiggly for my health.
Nonetheless, when the time came for us to get started, I knew I could do it, but I didn’t quite realize the test it would be.
My first run as Runner 12 started in the mid afternoon on Friday. 2.4 miles. Hot day. I didn’t loosen up enough and ran far too tightly and those were some tough 2.4 miles. I made it to the exchange and sucked wind after having had to work far harder than I’d expected.
I was scared at the end of that thing. I still had a nighttime run of 3.1 ahead of me, then a Saturday afternoon run of 7.3 miles. And I was the last runner on my team. And 5 of the 7.3 miles would be uphill.
I iced my knees and ankles, ate carefully, hydrated lots and strategically, and had a killer middle of the night run. 3.1 miles in 34 minutes. Better than the Halloween 5k (the same distance) by more than a minute. I ran so well my support van couldn’t keep up. I came to the exchange exhilarated, totally jacked on adrenaline and endorphin.
Due to some lengthy legs for Van 1, my group was able to take a good chunk of time to sleep. I probably slept nearly 3 hours after a great cold bath.
I couldn’t possibly have been more ready, given the circumstances, for my last run. Saturday dawned and the sun blazed and the air grew dry and hot. The day dragged on, with each runner in my van showing serious grit. Garrett, the former Army fellow, was a machine. His training and background obvious. Darren dug deep and kept a crazy steady pace, his active lifestyle of Ultimate Frisbee and the like lending a hand. Dan’s athleticism helped him overcome health concerns to end really strong. John surprised us, even though we knew he was a runner and biker, by blistering through every one of his legs. And Chris, a devoted basketball player and athlete, blew us away by destroying his last run, despite the hills and heat.
I waited for Chris at the exchange: nervous, terrified, and knowing I could do it but not certain I could do it in a way that would satisfy me. Not sure of my spine.
“Just run your race. Just run your race. You’ve got this.” I whispered this to myself countless times in the last hour before my run. My van-mates asked what I needed for support. I asked them to meet me at the end of mile four, which was the first time they would be able to due to my route. They encouraged and I drew strength from that.
I was about to knock an item off my bucket list.
I was also about to do something I’d needed to do for a long time. “Leave nothing to doubt. Give everything. Clean it out, dig it up, then clean it out more.”
I watched this video in my head again:
I started out perfectly, just getting my stride right and powering up the first chunk of hills. I heard Darren yell a final encouragement, then hit my iPod on and, as that video says, I headed upstream. Turned my back on comfort and safety and common sense.
A guy 40 lbs overweight, 6 weeks of real training, a gimpy right foot, painful knees, who never really did anything seriously athletic. Heading up five miles of hills, which would be followed by just under 2.5 miles of general downhill run.
The easy way out would have been to not make the choice to try this miserably hard thing.
Halfway up the second set of endless hills, I had the moment at 1:18 in the video above. With my iPod paused, all I heard was my breath straining through the hazy heat, my legs already heavy with exhaustion, thighs burning from the ascent. I nearly stopped. Nearly bent over to catch my breath.
No way. Stopping meant quitting right now.
I could catch my breath while walking. Even out the stride, take it smooth and maybe just a bit slower for a moment while I reminded my lungs what full felt like.
But first, I had to show these hills how I felt about them.
I took a deep breath. “How about these hills, huh?” My shout caught the line of runners ahead and behind by surprise. I stretched my arms out wide. “Will they ever end?” Then I screamed and laughed and kept going.
I remembered another moment on another, much lower, hill. A moment where my life changed for eternity. A moment where I learned about my true nature by suddenly knowing that God was real.
On those hills near Lake Mead, I had another moment where I learned about my true nature.
I kept going.
I walked. I jogged. I shuffled. I chafed. I walked some more. I forced myself to jog. “I’ll jog until that next little bush.”
“I’ll check my time at the top of this next rise.”
There were markers at every half mile. I checked my time. I was probably at about three miles.
Two more of this burning, chafing, miserable, beautiful, purifying, unbelievably incredible ascent.
“Hold nothing back. Leave nothing in storage. Clean. It. Out.”
I jogged. I walked.
I jogged faster.
At mile four, I got drenched, got some Gatorade, and kept going.
At the top of the worst mile yet, steep, steep, endless hills, having passed two others who were not going to give up, I saw the lake. I felt the breeze.
I forced myself to jog. My legs hated me. They were dead weights that I had to swing from my hips by will alone.
I had no energy, no fuel left. My mouth was too sweet from the Gatorade.
“One step then another. I’m on my way. I’ll get this done.”
I felt the old questions breathing down my neck. The old storage. That old beast that stopped me, kept me safe, kept me tied up, kept me sane, kept a little bit and sometimes a lot in storage.
Kept me safe.
I moved. I jogged. Passed another runner.
This was hard. This was unbelievably miserable. My legs weren’t screaming at me anymore; they were just hanging there, swinging because I wouldn’t let them stop. My back bunched up at my waist like a squeeze-ball of tension and pain.
I forced myself to relax my stride. Walked a little more.
A mile to go. A team-member joined me. His support stirred me, actually pulled me out of my conflict. I gave up a little, rested.
Was this all I had? Was I sure?
This wasn’t all I had.
We caught up with the rest of our van group. I jogged. “How much farther?”
“You got this, man.” “Go Jared, you go your pace.”
They stayed with me, just behind. I think they knew I needed to just get. this. done.
Despair darkened my vision. Was this damn pavement ever going to take me to the freaking finish line? Was I going to crap out a hundred yards shy because I just couldn’t do it? Or was I two hundred yards out? Maybe it was only twenty.
I couldn’t run anymore. I couldn’t keep my legs moving.
But I did. I don’t know where it came from, but I kept going. My breath came short, my body wasn’t a body but just pain and exhaustion and need.
The orange finish line broke into view. My vision cleared a little. I sucked wind and checked deep, deep inside. Was I holding anything back?
I had nothing left.
So I pushed faster, then a little faster.
Then I was sprinting. I felt light, fast, strong, powerful, and pure.
The inflated orange finish line passed over me. I died and came alive. Nearly blacked out, forced myself to stay upright, feel the breath filling my lungs, the pain blazing in my thighs, calves, knees, back, and ankles.
Once I had my breath back, hands high-fived, medal pulled over my head, I stepped away from the group toward the water and screamed, exulting in my victory over my enemy: Me. I nearly wept and maybe did a little.
No doubts, no questions, no fear. Those were all burned away. Only victory, power, and a never-to-be-forgotten certainty that I beat my oldest and worst enemy.
I had a catharsis at that moment. With my vision as clear and pure as it had been in a long time, maybe ever, and with the joy of the hardest-fought triumph blazing through me, I had a catharsis.
That basement was never a basement. It was a dungeon. Filled with chains of doubt and cobwebs of laziness. The chains had been holding a beast, for sure.
But the beast was me. Not asking those questions, but telling me to stop asking those questions and to just. dig. deeper and break free.
Go free your beast.