Trail Tips

Chasing Your Trail-Running Potential Takes Many Years, So Keep Believing

This strange time is a major opportunity. Wherever you are starting right now, your potential lies on the distant horizon. There are countless miles between where you are and where you are capable of going. You just have to believe and put in the work. 

Here’s the thing: I am not talking about the coronavirus-induced shutdown. I’m talking about whatever strange time you’re reading this.

Chasing Potential Is Scary

“Potential” is such a daunting concept when you really think about it. What are your true capabilities? I think there are some places where people intuitively understand the massive amount of year-over-year focus it takes to get close to answering that question. 

Piano, for example. Start young, play until your fingers bleed, encode the keys into your neurology until it’s not a question of playing the right notes, but being unable to play the wrong ones.

Golf we get, too. Lee Trevino put it succinctly: “There is no such thing as natural touch. Touch is something you create by hitting millions of golf balls.”

Teller (of Penn and Teller) said one of the quotes I have made my own personal North Star: Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.

But my favorite is magic. How do magicians perform the impossible? Teller (of Penn and Teller) said one of the quotes I have made my own personal North Star: “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”

Exploring potential in anything is magic. Yeah, if we want, we can figure out the methods of the tricks. Neuron patterns change with repetition as physiology adapts from the cellular level on up, with feedback cycles from thousands of hours of dedicated practice and rest and adaptation. Almost no one sees the practice, though. They are just dazzled by the effortless trick. 

The magic is an illusion, a mistake of perspective. The hard work is what’s real. 

And now is a great time to do some real hard work.

Potential Takes Time

Give it three years. Then tack on a couple more. While we’re here, let’s double that number. Now that’s the good stuff.

Depending on your age and background, what “potential” means may vary. At 80, those big goals look different than at 20. The big goals are still out there, though, just requiring time and stubborn perseverance. 

Because here is what really counts: the goals themselves don’t matter all that much. What matters is embracing the purposeful daily/monthly/yearly process that can support growth far beyond those goalposts. Potential-chasing is an excuse for a growth process full of laughs, tears, love, hate, boredom, ecstasy, existential crises and everything else. Where it ends up is less important than how you get there and how you feel about yourself along the way.

Potential-chasing is an excuse for a growth process full of laughs, tears, love, hate, boredom, ecstasy, existential crises and everything else. Where it ends up is less important than how you get there and how you feel about yourself along the way.

I always try to remind athletes (and myself) that chasing potential is about something way bigger and more daunting than any race or training block. In just two sentences, the legendary book Once A Runner summarized the answer that all athletes, pianists, and magicians learn when seeking those outer limits:

“What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes.”

The Trial of Miles is not necessarily about big running weeks. It’s about a long-term focus that mixes the hard work with rest, big dreams with small actions, deep faith with searing doubts. It’s life. And that process can be so freaking cool no matter where it leads. 

It’s About Rest and Self Acceptance Too

Right now, that long-term investment might mean you are resting or taking a down period or not thinking about your potential at all. Great! That reset time is so important, whether it’s from a major injury or a pandemic.

Just remember that not having a race on the schedule in 2020 doesn’t mean you aren’t still building toward something big. Your potential barely cares about that timescale. All your potential asks is that even when you’re taking a step back, you’re doing it with the understanding that it can fuel a leap forward.

Or maybe your long-term goals have you building your base or working on speed or cross training or self-acceptance in the midst of adversity or anything else. This moment is an opportunity because every moment is an opportunity that can feed back into the bigger picture. The clock is ticking … slowly if you look at it … but turn away and you’ll wonder where all the time went. 

Belief Over the Long Haul

So no matter what, just keep believing. If you read my writing, you know I love that word more than the band Journey and motivational cat posters combined. Why? For me, belief means thinking you can continue to grow even when handed evidence (or race cancellations) to the contrary.

Yes, life with resolute belief can be more fun and purposeful. But even if you aren’t concerned with the self-acceptance stuff, embracing the belief-fueled process can unlock potential that seems impossible today. What happens when belief informs action over months and years?

Maybe that belief gets you out the door to train. Maybe it lets you rest to adapt to past training or persevere after a tough injury. Maybe it allows you to invest in yourself in a way that makes you vulnerable, since you know that even when things go to crap, you’ll keep believing.

At first, it’s just a fun psychological exercise. But zoom out. Then click the zoom out button again and again and again. Eventually, as your body adapts, whatever mental tricks you did to cultivate belief and self-acceptance leave the brain and start working their way into your blood and sinew.

Over multiple training cycles and years, your entire physiology can transform. Your bones and muscles and aerobic system will be able to do magical things because you let yourself believe in your own ability to become a magician.

Long-Term Magic

Running economy can improve over decades, and it’s possible that running economy over trails in particular can develop farther into a running career. There is usually more aerobic development possible for runners, particularly when feeding back into the specifics of a purposeful training approach. Individualized adaptation processes often take many cycles to fully understand and optimize, and alterations at 50 or 60 or 70-plus can lead to new breakthrough adventures. All the little details of plans and physiology matter, but I don’t want you thinking too much about the specifics.

Spend more time believing in yourself (and taking actions accordingly) than anyone could reasonably expect. Try to enjoy each day as much as you can, but remember that work is work and it’s OK for it to feel like a grind sometimes, too.

Instead, I want you to embrace the magic. Spend more time believing in yourself (and taking actions accordingly) than anyone could reasonably expect. Try to enjoy each day as much as you can, but remember that work is work and it’s OK for it to feel like a grind sometimes, too.

A good week? You can get a bit stronger.

A great training cycle? Heck yes you can reach new heights.

A solid year? Now there will be some fundamental shifts. You may even get a glimpse of something extra exciting. 

But your potential asks for even more. Try not to get scared by that—it all unfolds a day at a time and it can be so fun along the way. Just make sure you don’t give up on yourself or your capabilities with all the inevitable failures you’ll face.

Do that with anything in life. It doesn’t have to be running. Believe against all reasonable expectations, accepting setbacks and existential crises as parts of the process too. Embrace the full process and all that entails, particularly through the uncertainties of talent, aging, circumstances and luck. Give yourself over with a self-accepting smile that can also work as a grimace.

Do that, and years down whatever trails you’re traveling on, you may find yourself looking back and asking:

When did I become a magician?

Small Business Shout Out

We all need running shoes/clothes/fuel, and now is a great time to get the equipment for your quarantine quests! Boulder-based Go Far Running Shop is locally owned by Kate King, an amazing human who lifts up the whole community.

Her entire business has transferred to online orders during the pandemic and she can complete them rapidly for your needs. Go Far is offering incredible sales right now on all of its products, from badass shoes like the Nike Wildhorse 6 or HOKA Speedgoat 4 to food and clothes. Plus, you can get 10-percent off all products with the discount code GOFARTHER10 at their website here.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.