Back to Fitness: Go For It

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By John Andersen

Matt Thompson
Matt Thompson

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to get a front row seat in witnessing one of my best friends win his first trail race. Matt Thompson, Crozetian, my neighbor and training partner, had a thrilling victory at the Terrapin Mountain 50K trail race.

Okay, disclaimer: please excuse me while I write again about ultramarathon running. I know that on its surface, it’s not very “back-to-fitness-y.” However I strongly feel that distance running fully captures the commitment and perseverance that is required to keep fitness in our busy lives. And trail running, well, that just exemplifies this beautiful area in which we live. Now back to Matt.

This was such a thrilling victory because Matt was not supposed to win. Don’t get me wrong, he is a talented runner, much faster than me. However, he’s just a “regular guy.” He works full time as an IT guy, owns a home, and is married with three young boys. When I go to his house, it’s only a few minutes before I feel like I have to slowly back away from the chaos that comes with raising three boys.

The heavy favorite in this race was a guy named Aaron Saft. Aaron is also a great guy and also a family man, but he’s more of what we’d call an elite runner. He has won his last five races in a row, and 10 of his last 13. In short, he’s a stud and most of us just dream of having his speed and endurance.

Despite having a great race, Saft didn’t win. Our guy Thompson won! Matt had one of those days you dream about, where everything goes right and you find superhuman strength somewhere in the body and mind.

But none of this would have happened if he didn’t go for it.

Going for it starts in training. It starts with 4:30 a.m. wake ups so you can get your run in before walking the dogs, feeding the kids, and heading to work. It means heading out alone in the dark, with just a headlamp as your guide. It means facing the constant stress of training vs. your family life and your job. It means pushing yourself when nobody is watching. It means getting out the door when you really just don’t feel like it.

Matt also went for it on race day. One of the intriguing things about ultramarathon races is that they are very long and, around here, are in the mountains. So you really have to figure out what a sustainable effort is early on in the race. You can’t look at your watch for pace as a guide, because a 16-minute mile could be great if you’re climbing up a steep mountain grade. If you go out too hard, the consequences are usually pretty epic. Out of gas and mentally deflated, you may find yourself defeated with many, many miles yet to go.

Right out of the gates, Thompson went for it and hung with Saft for as long as he could, about 9 miles. At that point, Saft started running away from Thompson as they started up the second big climb of the day. By the halfway point, Matt found himself 4 minutes behind and tired.

But did he panic or get discouraged? No! He put his head down and kept moving. Going for it means going for it the whole race, not just at the start.

It is very easy to get discouraged in this situation, knowing you have 15 more tough miles to run and your competitor just pulled away from you. You can always “just finish” and still have a good day. It takes a special motivation not to give up and still go for the win.

As the miles ticked off, and the terrain started to change from endless mountain climbs to endless mountain descents, the gap started to close. With about 10 miles to go, Thompson caught sight of Saft. Now there was a switch in his mind. This can happen.

From doubt to possibility, Thompson kept going for it and in a few more miles caught up with Saft, then ultimately passed him with about 6 miles left to go! Saft never let up and remained just 1 minute behind for those remaining 6 miles. Being chased like that is exhausting, but Thompson was going to finish what he started. He held on, winning by just one minute, and collapsed at the finish line, exhausted and thrilled.

So, how does this story relate to you? Ultimately, only you can decide that, but I think “going for it” should really strike a chord with anyone who is trying to get back to fitness.

There is a lot at stake: your health, your family, your job.

And there are uncertainties. What if I fail? What if I’m just back on the couch in a month. Why bother? What if I get hurt? What if I just look like a fool?

Doubt will come, but set a lofty goal and take one step at a time. Nothing happens if you don’t get out the door. Amazing, transformative things happen, though, when you go for it.

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