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In 2021, Let’s Believe Recklessly

In some parts of the US legal system, “recklessness” is defined as having a conscious disregard for the risks of an action. There are a bunch of other definitions too, all of which depend on the jurisdiction and type of case. If you know any law students reading this article, prepare a cup of warm broth to nurse them back to health after they wake up from the stress-induced blackout caused by that intro. 

My brain always glommed onto two of those words: conscious disregard. In the law, the concept of recklessness only comes up when something bad happens. That makes sense, because by definition when a lawyer is present in any social situation, something bad is happening. But I want to talk about the reverse. What happens when it takes a conscious disregard of some of the downsides for something good to happen?

Playing the probabilities leads to a highly probable life. 

Here’s a joke I just made up: a lawyer and statistician walk into a bar, and absolutely nothing else interesting happens. You have to take risks to escape the grooved path. You have to enter the land of Conscious Disregard, where risks and stories are around every bend.

Mountain-bike world champion Kate Courtney posted a great tweet the other day: “Before you can prove something is possible, you must endure a long period of believing without yet knowing if you can.” Believing is freaking scary when you really think about it. Every single time you put yourself out there, you are in the unknown. You may succeed, you may not, and either way it’s going to involve a metric crap-ton of exhausting work. The lawyer tells you about the risk. The statistician tells you about the improbability.

The believer tells you about the possibility.

I was a lawyer back in late 2013 when my wife, Megan, turned to me, a lightbulb practically shining above her head. “You should be a running coach!”

Looking back at that time while writing this article, I am not filled with excitement or joy or anything like that. I just get tired. And anxious. And tired again. So many hours, so much learning, a huge mountain to climb with no end in sight. So many chances to fail and screw it all up. Fortunately, back in 2013, I must not have been a great lawyer, because I didn’t think about those risks. I just put up a janky website and learned all those things I didn’t know. I am so thankful for that initial ignorance.

And here’s the message of this article: I think we all have to cultivate a bit of willful ignorance in all we do. That doesn’t mean we should be stupid. I’m using the word “reckless,” but just as a framing device and not as an invitation to participate in a “Purge”-like free-for-all without any consequences. Instead, I am urging you (and mainly talking to myself because I need to hear this message right now) to go into 2021 leading with the heart and soul rather than with logic and a spreadsheet of probabilities.

And here’s the message of this article: I think we all have to cultivate a bit of willful ignorance in all we do. That doesn’t mean we should be stupid. … Instead, I am urging you to go into 2021 leading with the heart and soul rather than with logic and a spreadsheet of probabilities.

You have probably heard that many mathematicians and scientists make their breakthroughs at a young age. Or that novelists follow a similar pattern. But there are plenty of notable exceptions. My guess is that the phenomenon has little to do with the brain, just with the curse of experience. Experience shows us what can go wrong. So we don’t attack the tricky equation or tackle the scary hypothesis or write that story that is clawing at the back of our brain. We stay in the groove, knowing that the land of Conscious Disregard is full of monsters.

But at least it’s less full of spreadsheets and legal briefs. 

Gosh, looking back knowing what I know now, I’m not sure I would have started coaching with as much enthusiasm, or started coaching at all. I think that’s what Kate Courtney’s tweet was getting at. If you save your big swings for situations that have a high probability of success, you’ll never take the bat off your shoulder. I am the type of nerd that is also a big baseball fan, so I can tell you that advanced statistical analytics tell us that never swinging is a bad thing.

If you save your big swings for situations that have a high probability of success, you’ll never take the bat off your shoulder. I am the type of nerd that is also a big baseball fan, so I can tell you that advanced statistical analytics tell us that never swinging is a bad thing.

Look, last year was a freaking nightmare. I wrote an article like this a year ago, and it came way too true. “In 2020, Let’s Fail Spectacularly”—I am pretty sure that’s the ultimate jinx. I should go to Vegas and ruin everyone’s luck. 

We’re entering 2021 with so much hope and optimism for the future, but the marks left by 2020 will be there for a long time. In a perfect world, we’ll take chances and usually it won’t work out in just the way we hope. In an imperfect world, we go a year without human contact or an anxiety-free cough. It all can seem like unknowable, uncontrollable chaos. What’s the damn point?

I think we all have that question swirling around in our heads sometimes. For me, it’s like a pinball bouncing off every chance I want to take. Write that article! It’s a half-baked idea with a quarter-baked plan. Start coaching! What do you know anyway? Set big goals for that race! Objective facts indicate that you haven’t met your last 10 big race goals when it counted. 

With all due respect, probability can suck it. 

You’ll often never know whether an adventure will work out at all until you let yourself learn all the millions of predictable and unpredictable ways it can end with a tragicomic letdown of epic proportions. Those letdowns can be more normal things like bad races, running injuries, bad articles, a stalled career swerve. Or it can be major things involving health and love and life itself.

That’s why my favorite fictional love story is from the television show “Watchmen.” The main character Angela is told that her relationship will last 10 years and end tragically. “So, we spend 10 years in the tunnel of love, and once we’re out, something terrible happens?” she asks. Her potential partner (I am being intentionally vague to avoid spoilers) responds: “By definition,” he says. “Don’t all relationships end in tragedy?” They move forward into the unknown, deeply in love and deeply disregarding the answer to that question.

But let’s end in the real world of athletics. 

Back in late 2019, elite mountain athlete Alex Borsuk’s persistent stomach pain got worse and worse. Her bloodwork showed numbers that should make walking up the stairs difficult, let alone running up mountains. She kept moving forward with hope, but it was impossible (and ill-advised) to ignore. After an epic adventure through the medical system, she was diagnosed with Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency. EPI is incredibly tough on the body, especially for athletes that need to process extra calories for performance. And ultramarathon adventures? The odds did not look good.

Alex was backed into a corner, with a few options. Stop training at the same level. Keep training but reduce her big dreams. Or go for it with reckless belief (with the blessing of her doctors). If you know Alex at all, you can guess what happened next.

It was the conundrum we all face, magnified ten-fold. When going for big scary things succeeds so rarely, why go for it at all? 

While talking constantly to her medical team and listening to all healthcare advice, she went for it. She paid loving attention to her body while consciously disregarding the improbability of her biggest dreams. It was the conundrum we all face, magnified ten-fold. When going for big scary things succeeds so rarely, why go for it at all? 

Alex’s adventure spirit had the answer … Because. 

I think the true magic of an adventure spirit is that it harnesses some of that youthful ignorance of the potential downsides. Because that’s where stories happen, where fun happens, where not-fun-that-later-becomes-fun happens. But, mainly, just because.

In September, Alex set the unsupported FKT on the Wonderland Trail. Nearly 100 miles, 24,000 feet of climbing, in 24 hours 1 minute. Leading up to that day, she faced down so many monsters in training. On the day, she literally faced down a mountain lion that tracked her for a few miles. And all of that pales in comparison to the uncertainty that she faced down when she got the initial EPI diagnosis. 

Damn the spreadsheets and the suits. Full speed ahead with the spirit. All systems set to “BELIEVE.” And while we’re at it, give the “reckless” button a little push.

It all could just have easily ended much differently, a slower time or not making the start line at all. And, afterward, the hard journey continues. Like the love story in “Watchmen,” life does not come with any permanent “happily ever after.” Alex has risks and concerns to face all the damn time, and always will, like all of us in our own unique ways.

She’ll face them. And we will too. 

Damn the spreadsheets and the suits. Full speed ahead with the spirit. All systems set to “BELIEVE.” And while we’re at it, give the “reckless” button a little push. Whatever big swing you have planned, it might work or it might not (most likely not, if we’re monitoring the probabilities). But either way, it’s going to be an adventure.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner