During the last weekend of April, I took part in a 208 mile running race called the Smoky Mountain Relay (SMR) through the mountains of North Carolina. Although I’ve run in many races, this one was different in that it was a team format. Our goal was to complete all 36 legs of the race as fast as possible. The rules of the race are that each of the six team members has to run six legs, but the team can allocate specific legs however they want. This format results in each team member running somewhere between 32-40 miles in a span of about 26 hours. Believe it or not, there’s a great deal of strategy involved in choosing who will run when since the terrain and elevation gain can change so much from leg to leg. Fortunately, my brother-in-law was on our team, and he’s a master of strategy and put us in all the right places.
I’ll spare you all the details of the race, but share that we won the race and set a new course record in the process. It was an amazing experience that I still find myself reflecting back on, despite the fact that it’s now several weeks behind me. Actually, all six of us can’t seem to stop thinking about it and talking about it. Our wives want to kill us. The other day, I found myself trying to figure out why this experience meant so much to me? I’ve come up with three reasons:
- Essence of team: I’ve been fortunate to be part of many great teams from early in childhood through college. Through those experiences, I’ve learned that there’s something powerful about being in the trenches with people and all working toward the same goal. I’ve become convinced that great teams have the potential to bring out versions of people that they couldn’t surface on their own. We are willing to push ourselves in ways we wouldn’t do otherwise for the good of the group. There also seems to be a level of support on great teams that challenges us to give more, while also knowing that our teammates have our back and will be there if things don’t go our way. The collection of guys on our SMR team was the true essence of a team. We each understood our role and executed it to the best of our ability. We supported each other and motivated each other. I experienced some significant challenges during the race and am convinced that I was able to hang in there and persevere because of the connection I felt with and for these guys. I ran one of the hardest legs of the race at about 2:00 AM. It was an elevation gain of about 2200 feet over six miles, which is like running up Paris Mountain three times. As I struggled under the full moon that night/morning, I had images of my teammates’ faces in my head as I pushed forward one step at a time and it felt absolutely amazing when I reached the top and heard their screaming voices.
- Capability of humans: During graduate school, I took an exercise physiology course that was really tough. The professor was brilliant and expected a lot from his students. During the first week of class, he said something that I’ve never forgotten. While introducing the complexities of the interaction between the brain and the body, he said, “Keep in mind that every max effort you ever reach is actually only a ‘mental max.’ The body is capable of pushing even harder, but the minds says stop.” It’s truly incredible what our bodies are capable of doing and I witnessed this fact time after time during our race. I was out there with guys I consider brothers, so seeing them reach and find a gear they might have never reached before was an inspiring thing to watch. Each of our minds was screaming stop, but we kept pushing on toward the goal. Amidst the busyness and stress of life, it’s easy to limit ourselves. However, oftentimes, we are actually capable of even more.
- Fun: When I was a kid I had one main goal – have fun. I think many of us were that way; I hope we were. As we age, life gets more complicated and, as a result, more serious. It seems that adults often live lives that treat the seriousness of life as mutually exclusive from fun. I realize I’m that way far too often. One of the main reasons the SMR was so incredible was that it was fun. Spending around 28 hours with a group of guys either in a van, at a leg checkpoint, or running was incredibly fun. We told stories, made fun of each other, talked about our families, and enjoyed the breathtaking landscape we were blessed with. Obviously, it’s not feasible to do races every weekend, but it’s vital that we make time for fun. As a psychologist, I ask a lot of questions on a daily basis. Although it might be a surprise to some people, one that tends to generate the most confusion and reason for pause from adults is “what do you do for fun?” I think this confusion mirrors the place our culture has come in terms of how we spend our time, what our goals are, and what we spend time thinking about. As I (slowly) walk away from the experience I had several weeks ago, one message I’m hearing loud and clear is the importance of having fun.
In closing, I’m including a link to a blog that one of my teammates wrote on the race. He’s a talented writer and photographer who captured our experience in a very creative way. Please click on link below: